Retired NFL Players Still Seeking Recognition at the Bargaining Table
Pat Matson has a very clear interest in the National Football League owners-National Football League Players Association or correctly the former National Football League Players Association as the players have decertified as a “union.” Matson was a player in both the American Football League with Denver and Cincinnati and when the American Football League-National Football League completed their merger in 1970, Matson moved to the NFL with Cincinnati.
Matson was the Cincinnati Bengals player representative in the brief 1974 NFL strike. Matson is one of the players who have been left behind by the very players association and Matson once was a players’ representative and walked a picket line in 1974.
Matson is facing his 32nd operation from injuries sustained during his ten year career between 1966 and 1975 with Denver, Cincinnati and Green Bay. He needs his ankle fixed. He has had knee replacements and hip replacements.
Matson seems to be fine mentally even after having four or five concussions during his career. He said he walks a little funny though. He admits he is fortunate despite the surgeries as he played 10 years and had a business career after football. He probably should be getting more than $1.064 a month in pension but that is considerably more than many who played for roughly the same amount of time during the same time period that Matson was employed in the AFL and NFL.
Matson is not a big fan of the late Gene Upshaw, the former Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
Last year Brees seemed to dismiss complaints by former players who were looking for more benefits from the NFL.
“There’s some guys out there that have made bad business decisions,” Brees said. “They took their pensions early because they never went out and got a job. They’ve had a couple divorces and they’re making payments to this place and that place. And that’s why they don’t have money. And they’re coming to us to basically say, ‘Please make up for my bad judgment.’ In that case, that’s not our fault as players.”
Brees sounded an awful lot like Upshaw who once said that his association couldn’t take care of everyone.
Brees should have spoken to someone like Matson who did get a job after his career. In fact Matson had a job during his playing days. After his career Matson worked for Roger Penske and was able to get health insurance even though just about every player who leaves the game has a pre-existing condition which makes it extremely difficult for former players to get health coverage. Players who have been in the NFL since 1993 and become vested veterans have health benefits for five years following their careers. In Matson’s day there was no post-career safety net. The five years is probably not enough for present day players as their bodies seem to give out in six or seven years after their career ends.
Brees seems to be totally out of touch with working conditions of past players (pre-1993ers) and that is pretty sad as Brees has his name on the antitrust lawsuit that the former players association planned in the event of a lockout in an effort to torpedo the NFL’s labor scheme.
Matson doesn’t have too much regard for either the owners or the players association in this battle.
“The owners only care about getting all of the money,” Matson said of the 2011 lockout. “I don’t know what (Brees) is talking about or doing to help the pre-1993 players. Rookies are making $50 million. (We) got no payment for training camp; they furnished your meals and put you up. We got 50 bucks for an exhibition game (six in 1968) and Paul Brown used to have three-a-days (practices) in heat and humidity that was terrible. I never gave it a second thought to have an off season job, we always had jobs in the off season.”
There apparently is no solid information on how many players who never qualified for NFL post-career benefits available receive government benefits before the age of 65 because of disability. There is no way of knowing how many high school, college, Arena Football Leaguers, USFLers, World Football League players are also being cared for by the United States government although taxpayers may be on the hook for billions to provide care from football injuries.
Matson tried to sue the NFL/NFLPA for addition benefits in 1998 and failed. He blames both sides for the problems that retired and discarded players have and are facing.
“Upshaw had his good old boys network with (Harold) Henderson (NFL Executive Vice President for Labor Relations and Chairman of the National Football League Management Council Executive Committee). They denied everybody’s claims (for disability). They wished you would go away and die. The NFL is boot hill. Upshaw was paying $150-200,000 for yes men and got a $6 million a year salary. We (the former players) are walking dead and can’t do anything.
In 1969, Matson broke his tibia as a member of the Bengals against Denver. He told the Bengals trainer that he was hurt but no one wanted to tell Bengals coach Paul Brown that Matson was hurt.
“(The trainer) was scared of Paul,” said Matson. “He said you’re okay. If you can walk, you play, not like an NBA player if his toe hurts, he is out for two weeks. After the game I told my wife as I walked up the steps at Nippert Stadium. Four days later they X-rayed it”.
Matson played just six games in 1969 but he was a valuable member of Paul Brown Bengals and had the respect of his teammates. He was the team’s player representative. In 1974, the NFLPA went on strike which forced the cancellation of the annual College All-Stars versus NFL Champion Charity Game in Chicago. There was a 44 day strike that year but the NFLPA could not keep the membership on the same page.
The players’ mantra in 1974 was “No Freedom, No Football”, which was a shot at the owners who were not giving players a right to sell their services after they played out their contract. If a player decided to sign with another team, the “Rozelle Rule” named after NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle kicked in. The commissioner would review the signing and figure out what “compensation” was owed to a team who lost a free agent to another team. The players struck on July 1. NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey and his membership could not get the owners do not agree on even a single demand. The players association called off the strike on August 10 and decided to sue the NFL. In 1975, members of the New York Jets and the New England Patriots struck on the final weekend of the pre-season in an effort to get the talks moving.
Eventually the NFL was found guilty of violating federal labor and antitrust laws.
In 1977 after the NFL owners were found guilty of violating federal labor and antitrust laws, the owners and players came up with a new collective bargaining agreement. The players did received improved benefits, an impartial arbitration of all grievances were implemented, there were some changes in the waiver system and option clauses and some free- agent restrictions were ended.
Interestingly enough, according to Matson, the NFLPA also sought better disability insurance along with widow’s and health benefits back in 1974. Matson said Paul Brown told him. “You tried to ruin the NFL but you are going to stay,” after he picketed in front of the Wilmington College pre-season training site in Wilmington, Ohio.
“(There is) a lot of wear and tear on the human anatomy,” said Matson of playing football If you were hit in the head and were knocked out, the trainer would come out and see if a player was okay.
“If you could see two out of three fingers,” said Matson of an on-field check-up, “you went back in. I was in the middle of the wedge. Nobody cares about a wedge. I was at the point of attack in the wedge.”
In Matson’s day, defensive linemen were allowed to slap the heads of offensive players to gain an advantage. “Deacon Jones, Tom Jackson, he was really good at it. I studied the Oakland Raiders who were really good at that,” he said. “Today they are wrestling with each other.”
Matson does wonder about the icons of the 1990s, a guy like Steve Young or a guy like Troy Aikman. Both suffered a number of concussions during their days as quarterbacks although Aikman has said that a back problem not concussions ultimately led him to retirement.
Matson is hoping the NFLPA will look after the old players as part of the collective bargaining process which will eventually resume once the court proceedings wind down, but he doesn’t hold much hope. Matson is 66 years old and qualifies for social security and Medicare. His body is a wreck and he needs some work on his shoulders as well as his ankles. The NFLPA failed him and his peers by not collectively bargained a post career benefit package with the owners.
Mr. Weiner is an award winning, nationally recognized radio and print journalist who specializes in the business and politics of sports. He has been a contributing columnist for major newspapers and a commentator on the Westwood One Radio Network. Weiner is the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award.