NEW YORK. N.Y. — In October 1987, New York Jets defensive lineman Marty Lyons decided to cross a picket line and play football because he didn’t like the way National Football League Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw was conducting the association’s business. The NFLPA went on strike looking for a liberalized form of free agency and more money. The NFLPA didn’t bother asking for after-career lifetime health benefits.
Lyons has never looked back at his decision to cross the picket line and in hindsight thinks the 1987 four week strike was a waste of time.
“I don’t worry about it, I got more important things to do than worry about a labor dispute, worry about a lockout” said Lyons on Tuesday at the announcement that he was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame. “I got four kids, I try to be the best father, best husband that I can to them. Whatever happens in this dispute, they will settle it.
“If it is going to help the league, if it is going to help the players, if it is going to subsidize our retirement a little bit better great. If it doesn’t, I can’t worry about things I can’t control. I am interested. I am still an NFL alumnus, I still believe in what the players are trying to accomplish but I cannot control it. If you can’t control it, why get stressed out about it. I support (former Giants defensive lineman) George Martin and the NFL alumni. I was just at the NFL Draft with (Commissioner) Roger Goodell. I do a lot of work for the Jets. I see the issues on both sides of the fence. But I can’t control any of it, so you know what, I get every morning and I go to work.”
But Lyons is interested in the welfare of his former teammates and others who played in the NFL and thinks that the old players need some help.
Neither the 1982 nor the 1987 NFLPA strikes, in the long term, helped the membership. The “money now” mantra of the players should have been replaced by “what will your life at the ages of 45, 50, 55 and 60 be like?” The players seem to have the same problems today as they did in 1982 with the exception of having more money than those who played 29 and 24 years ago.
“Probably not,” said Lyons of whether the two strikes helped those players involved in the long run. “You know, I think the issues from 87 to where we are now maybe get magnified a little bit more because there is more money involved. Anytime that there is money involved and the issues are back and forth, I don’t know who wins. Because you got the owners, because they want a little more money, you got the players. . . .”.
“I see guys like Kevin Turner, a good friend of mine who played at the University of Alabama suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is 41 years old, 42 years old with three kids. What’s the NFL going to do for him? What’s his pension going to do for him and his family? He’s just fighting every day to stay alive”.
The National Football League does not acknowledge that head injuries may cause health problems down the line. In 2010, the league posted a warning about head injuries in each of the 32 team’s locker rooms but other than a few words and some other forms of communications, players still are getting their bells rung and returning to the field as quickly as possible.
“You didn’t worry about them (head injuries), you really didn’t worry about injuries,” said Lyons of his attitude and the attitude of his NFL playing peers during his time in the league in the 1980s. “Because the bottom line is, if you allowed somebody to come in and take your position, you may not get it back. So there was a big difference, everybody played hurt. If you were injured, it was a different story.”
Lyons former coach Walt Michaels and former Sack Exchange teammate Joe Klecko are hurting like many others who played in the NFL. “If you see Walt now and how he walks around, if you see Joe Klecko, he just had a shoulder replacement. The game does have a price to pay if you play it long enough.
Lyons is doing well. He is a senior vice president of operations for a Long Island construction company, the Marty Lyons Foundation is still going strong after 27 years helping terminally ill children, he is a motivational speaker and has 20 years of broadcasting on his resume.
But Lyons knows that former NFL players need help.
“I would love to see the league and the committee (the players association or more correctly what is the decertified players association) to come to some sort of agreement that if you are a vested player (three or more years of experience) and you leave the game, you have a lifetime benefit of health care. When you retire, your benefits stop (the post 1993 players get health benefits for five years and then it ends, Lyons career was done in 1989 after 11 years). You better hope you get a good job or have enough money to go on COBRA. So I think health benefits are the number one priority that we should be looking at to get retired players once they leave the NFL.
“If you are vested and you make a contribution to helping the league and the players then you and your family should have lifetime health benefits. When I left the game in 1991, I had to get my health benefits. In hindsight, I think it was a mistake (that the NFLPA did not fight for lifetime health care) because some of the players who are financially stressed or some of the players now who don’t have health benefits maybe they would not be in this situation in their life and the time of the life if they had better benefits, better health care. Maybe they would have gotten the proper help needed.”
Lyons, despite an 11 year career, never made big money that could last a lifetime. The “billionaires versus millionaires” slogan that sportswriters have attached to this lockout doesn’t work. Very few players make huge sums of cash. Most careers are brief and players need to find other employment after their careers.
But the problem is that NFL players might have short careers but their aches and pains last a lifetime and some become disabled and cannot work. Those players eventually end up on social security insurance and Medicare and are looked after by taxpayers.
That is where Upshaw and his associates which include members of the NFLPA executive board and player agents failed their constituency in 1982, 1987 and 1993. They took short-term gains and didn’t see the future.
Lyons looks at the dispute as a former player but notes that other people are getting hurt. NFL teams have been laying off employees or reducing salaries. Coaches are taking a pay cut and if games are missed per-diem employees will be left out in the cold.
“Everybody wants a little bit more of the pie,” he said. “And the bottom line is that the people at the bottom end of the food chain are going to pay the price if they don’t play the game of football. You got a lot of people that are relying on that added income every single Saturday or Sunday whether they are parking cars or working concessions or working the stadium. For them not to have an opportunity to feed their family when there is a lockout or labor dispute, it is a shame”.
NFL owners and players go to court on June 3 to argue over whatever they are fighting for. Collective bargaining agreement negotiations pick up on June 8. The players want status quo and to keep 59 percent of football revenues. The owners want the players to give back revenues, cut their salaries (contracts are not guaranteed) and help build stadiums in Minnesota and Santa Clara, California by kicking in part of their revenues.
Meanwhile former players are still out in the cold with meager pensions and no health benefits and for many football players, getting health insurance is almost impossible because of pre-existing conditions.
This is the NFL, with the initials NFL standing for, “Not For Long.”
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble