- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2007

The NFL’s disabled, disregarded veterans got their day in Congress this week. That’s a news story in itself, that a House Judiciary Subcommittee would take up its valuable time discussing the plight of such a tiny slice of its constituency. How tiny? The league’s 8,000 retired players — not all of them, obviously, in need of financial assistance — represent .0027 percent of the United States’ population of 300 million.

But then, the NFL has a TV network and the grape pickers don’t. So there everybody was in the Rayburn Building on Tuesday, talking about amputated feet, “crushed” backs, homelessness and pro football’s abandonment of its wounded vets.

“Pro football,” in this instance, is a two-headed monster — not only the owners but also the players, whose union oversees the retirement fund. Rep. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, found it disturbing that only $20 million of the $1.1 billion paid out each year in pensions and benefits goes to disabled retirees, a mere 1.8 percent.

Of course, 1.8 percent is better than .0027 percent, but who’s counting?

It’s hard not to feel for a banged-up old ballplayer, even if — warning: inconvenient truth coming — the banging was largely self-inflicted. The NFL, unfortunately, has no Walter Reed Hospital, no place for its casualties to go after they leave the game. When problems crop up later, retirees are often on their own.

Fashionable as it is to throw around the G-word, to blame everything on the greed of the current players and owners, let’s see whether we can come up with some other reasons why the situation might exist. How about this one:

The majority of today’s NFL players are black. The majority of yesterday’s NFL players — that is, pre-1970 — are white. Could that be why there isn’t more sympathy for the old-timers? Hey, I’m just asking.

This is a league, remember, that had zero black players from 1933 to ‘45. And for a decade or more after that, well, we’ve all heard the stories about teams having quotas, only allowing a certain number of blacks on the roster. That means there are retirees out there who, if the racial playing field had been level, never would have played in the NFL. (Translation: They were given jobs that should have gone to more talented black players.)

Would it be surprising, then, if the NFLPA’s current rank-and-file, predominantly black, didn’t feel all that responsible for the players of this era? Again, I’m just asking.

(I didn’t realize how Totally Ridiculous it was for black players in that period until I found out about Bob Mann. Mann was a fine receiver in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s for the Lions and Packers. In 1949, his second season, he led the league with 1,014 receiving yards and was second in catches with 66. Both figures, 1,014 and 66, were the third-highest totals in NFL history. According to newspaper reports, the club rewarded him by asking him to take a $1,500 pay cut. When he refused, he found himself out of work and didn’t hook on with another team until late in the 1950 season, when Green Bay signed him. The Lions’ response to his charge of being blackballed: “[We] want something more from an end than pass-catching ability.”)

Which brings us to the owners. How much attachment do many of them have to the players of yore? Most of them bought their clubs in the last 10, 15, 20 years. It’s one thing if an old-timer has shed some blood for you; then you might be more inclined to look out for him in the “afterlife.” But that’s rarely the case any more. When a disabled retiree’s knee aches, an owner isn’t likely to feel his pain.

So let’s not oversimplify this argument, reduce it to a mere tug-o’-war over the Almighty Buck. Other factors are likely contributing to this sorry state of affairs. Indeed, it’s reasonable to ask: Why is only the NFL being demonized? So many sports injuries are, after all, cumulative, the result of years of abuse. Why aren’t these crippled ex-players going after their alma maters — college and high school — or even Pop Warner football? Are you telling me all of them were in perfect health until they turned pro?

I keep picturing Paul Tagliabue lying on a beach somewhere, sipping a drink with an umbrella in it. Now there’s a guy with a sense of timing, a guy who knows when to leave. The escalating fight between NFL Players Past and NFL Players Present is one no commissioner would want to be in the middle of.

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