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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Some Questions NFL Players Should be Asking

Evan Weiner

Michael Vick replacing Kevin Kolb as the starter is more interesting to the common fan than news about concussions. But the same week Kolb went out with a head injury, medical observers criticized the Eagles for putting linebacker Stewart Bradley back into a game four minutes after he “got his bell rung.” NFL players play through pain even if, later in life, they could be prone to short-term memory loss, depression, Lou Gehrig’s disease or serious cardiovascular problems. That is why today’s players need to ask questions of league and National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA) officials.

Are players with football-related disabilities going to receive retirement and medical benefits from the NFL or the government? As ex-players seek government assistance, Congress is asking questions and no one from either party has answers. Will the NFL retirement and disability board take care of them? What happens if a first-year injury leads to complications that show up 10-15 years later? Will the U.S. Government be responsible for football related injuries? Is the NFL Retirement and Disability Board, as the U.S. Labor Department claims, more interested in paying lawyers than paying former players with disabilities?

NFLPA officials claim to have spent $13 million to help disabled players. Former Interim Director and General Counsel Richard Berthelsen refuted claims that the late former Executive Director Gene Upshaw did little to help players like John Mackey. Plan 88 (Mackey’s jersey number) was added to the 2007 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to provide up to $88,000 per year for players with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Mackey, the former NFLPA president, has front temporal dementia. The NFLPA initially refused to pay disability because some doctors found no link between his brain injury and football. Yet the NFL still tells its players: “If you have a head injury, report it immediately.”

Another question is whether disability benefits will be paid if the NFLPA decertifies to prevent a lockout next year. Could retired players suffer? One lawyer thinks so. “Their fiduciary obligation to anyone would likely cease, except perhaps as it pertains to the pension board — and then only as board members and not as a union,” said the lawyer. “It may be practically harder to sue under these circumstances jurisdictionally, as you would be suing pension board members and not a union for failure to represent or breach of fiduciary duty.”

Pensions are always an issue in upcoming bargaining sessions. Former players want a voice in the NFLPA’s affairs, similar to the rights retirees are given by the United Auto Workers.

The real physical problems begin once the cheering stops for many players. The NFLPA under Upshaw apparently did not care as the players faded into oblivion. The past labor battles were all about money, not the long-term ramifications of the game, a major strategy blunder. Players still do not have guaranteed contracts and there are still questions about retirement and disability benefits.

Football is a violent game with careers that can end at any moment. Players go through a wall for their teams. Teams and the NFLPA have not lived up to their part of the bargain. This, more than getting the biggest piece of the money pie, should be the underlying theme of the next CBA.

Evan Weiner is an award-winning, nationally-recognized radio and print journalist who specializes in the business and political aspects of sports. He has been a contributing columnist for major newspapers up and down the east coast 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.