- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

When discussing the latest rift between retired football players and the NFL Players Association, “broken” is the word of choice. Players with broken bodies. A broken system to deal with them. An utterly — possibly irreparably — broken relationship between the two sides.

For years, retired players have argued for bigger pensions and a better way to receive compensation for disabilities sustained during their playing careers. Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA’s embattled executive director, has responded by pointing to his record of negotiating for an increase in retiree benefits during each of the last four labor agreements dating back to 1993. There have been ugly exchanges back and forth, including reported threats of bodily harm and charges of dishonesty from both sides.

Emotions were particularly high Monday during a press conference at Mike Ditka’s restaurant. Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end and later coach of the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints, works on behalf of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a group that raises money for retired football players. Ditka introduced Brian DeMarco, a five-year veteran with Jacksonville and Cincinnati who said the union ignored his requests for assistance to help pay medical bills brought on by football-related injuries. DeMarco claimed he cannot work and has struggled to avoid homelessness.

“I have lost my grip. … I’ve lost my ability to hold my kids,” DeMarco said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I am not the only one. Whether you played in the NFL or not, poverty is poverty. Extreme poverty is extreme poverty. Somebody has got to step up to help the guys like me.”

Within hours, Upshaw responded by providing evidence of nearly $10,000 in extra payments given to DeMarco over four years. Upshaw also said the union last year distributed $1.2 million to 147 players in dire need of help.

DeMarco’s case aside, there is a mounting push to address the issue of retired players and how the union should treat them. Several ex-players, including Hall of Famers Paul Hornung and Deacon Jones, have indicated they will protest or boycott this summer’s induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, citing concerns over the difficulty of disabled ex-players to receive compensation for their football injuries.

“I’ll starve to death before I let them [mistreat] me like that,” Jones told the Houston Chronicle. “I can’t let you [mistreat] me. If you don’t support me, I can’t support you.”

A House subcommittee has scheduled a June 26 hearing on the benefits package for retired players. Specifically, the committee plans to examine the union’s process of evaluating which players are eligible for disability benefits.

“The relationship between the older players and Upshaw is terrible,” said Leo Kahane, a professor of economics at California State-East Bay and editor of the Journal of Sports Economics. “I really think the NFL has dropped the ball. If nothing is done, the image of the NFL and to a lesser extent the NFLPA will be blemished, and no one wants that.”

Both the union and retired players acknowledge the origins of the dispute stem from the 1950s and 1960s, when players had little power to bargain for higher pay or larger pensions. Players also admit to taking and spending pensions at a relatively young age because life expectancies for football players were shorter at the time.

The union increased benefits to retired players in 1993 and increased them further in the labor agreements of 1998, 2002 and 2006. The league’s oldest retirees now receive $250 a month for every season they played, up from $60 a month before 1993. In some instances, retired players receive pensions larger than their highest salaries as players. To fund these benefits, active players are putting in $96.5 million this year, according to the union.

“Our players understand the benefits that have been negotiated on their behalf and the improvements that have been made to the system,” NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis said. “We’re only hearing from a small group. The majority of our players understand the accomplishments we have made.”

In addition, the NFL and union have created a program to provide up to $88,000 extra to families of ex-players suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and last month announced an alliance to form a medical assistance fund.

But officials admit they are still playing a game of catch-up when compared to other sports, such as baseball, which offers higher pensions.

“For players who left the game some time ago, [Major League Baseball’s] plan is somewhat richer,” union officials wrote in a 16-page summary of NFLPA benefits provided to The Washington Times. “Baseball has historically had the better pension plan, and the NFLPA’s challenge since 1993 has been the difficulty of catching up. Just as saving for retirement becomes much harder for persons who fail to save in early years, pension funding becomes much harder when you get a late start.”

Former players, however, said their concern is not just over pension payments but the ability to claim disability for injuries they believe were sustained during their careers. Players like DeMarco and others claim that navigating the union’s system to prove the existence of a football-related disability is too difficult.

“It’s really not about the name-calling,” Gridiron Greats executive director Jennifer Smith said. “There’s just a lot of frustration about a system that’s broken.”

{bullet} Staff writer David Elfin contributed to this article.