- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2007

The NFL owes its old and broken-down players nothing.

That is just the way it is in business.

You negotiate your pension and medical benefits at the time of your employment.

You do not settle into retirement years later and cry, “No fair.”

To be honest, you can cry all you like, but no one is apt to feel your pain.

Mike Ditka felt compelled to cry on Capitol Hill last week, when he voiced frustration with the system before a House subcommittee.

Give Ditka this. His motivations are altruistic. He is not concerned about his financial situation. He made a good chunk of change in coaching. His concern is with his fallen buddies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the NFL was something far less than the $6 billion-a-year industry it is today.

And that is the rub for those former players who have serious health and financial issues. They played in a more modest NFL. They played at time when baseball was the national pastime and boxing still mattered to a large segment of the American population. They played at a time when football players routinely held jobs in the offseason.

Playing a professional sport was not a ticket to life-long solvency in those days. You played a sport for however many years, and then you entered the job market if a team did not have a position for you.

If you were smart, you strengthened your retirement nest egg in the workaday world before you became familiar with arthritis or body-part replacement surgeries.

Ditka can trot out all kinds of heartrending tales, of this player undergoing countless surgeries to repair a neck, a spine and a hip or that player receiving a $126.85-a-month pension.

There is the sad story of Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster being penniless and living in his pickup truck at one point before dying at age 50 in 2002.

Perhaps Webster is a good place to ask: What did the NFL Players Association owe Webster after his playing days were done?

That is not a simple question, for Webster could have had a place in the NFL if he had wanted it.

Webster actually finished his career with the Chiefs before becoming the team”s assistant strength and conditioning coach. Webster did not serve long in that capacity; friends and former teammates say he had trouble adjusting to life after football.

He apparently struggled with that adjustment to the end. Friends and former teammates tried to reach out to him, tried to help, but the old lineman known as Iron Mike was too proud, too depressed and too drugged up at times to get his life in order.

It was not as if the NFL ignored Webster”s plight and the strain it put on his family. The NFL paid him $100,020 annually the last three years of his life, plus paid $309,230 to his estate in 2005 that covered his disability from 1996 to 1999.

Ditka and the like-minded find union leader Gene Upshaw to be an easy target, even if the facts do not always support their barbs.

The NFL and the players association have been increasing the disability payments and pensions of ex-players. They have done so with former players already in the pension system. Try getting a company to do that in the workaday world.

One of the NFL flacks on Capitol Hill said too many former players fail in the area of personal accountability.

Too many end up making bad business decisions. Too many start drawing too soon from their pensions. Too many end up in divorce court and lose precious assets. And too many fail to do the paperwork that could ease the hit on their pocketbooks if they ever accumulate massive medical bills or become disabled.

That is one of the cold realities behind the sad tales.

Too many players are ill-equipped to deal with life after football.

It is far easier to throw stones at the behemoth known as the NFL.

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