- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

Darrell Green's name is sprinkled liberally through the record books of both the Washington Redskins and entire NFL.
Once the 41-year-old defensive back wraps up a 20-year playing career following the 2002 season and later reaches his 55th birthday, Green will set yet another record: largest pension ever paid to an NFL player. Thanks to his status as a two-decade player working entirely in the league's big-money era, Green can expect a monthly pension payment of $5,805.
"[Green] is certainly close to the top of, if not at, the top of the list," said Douglas Ell, a District-based attorney serving as legal counsel for the NFL's pension plan. The plan, like most regardless of industry, pays out the highest benefits to the longest tenured employees.
"Benefits to the players have continued to increase over the years, and he's obviously played a long time," Ell said.
Green's amount, which would translate to a very healthy income for most Americans, pales in comparison to the $1million Green will earn this season in uniform, as well as the $160,000 annual pension the recently retired Cal Ripken can expect once he turns 62.
Pro athlete pensions have only occasionally been a front burner issue for the major sports leaguers or players unions.
But the vast differences among pensions in the major team sports, and those between modern-day players and those from the 1940s and 1950s remain a source of many lesser known but still vicious debates.
The NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball each have received steady protests in recent years from older retirees upset with pensions that are exponentially smaller than current minimum salaries for players. And internally, each league has wrestled with balancing their meteoric economic growth with the retirement needs and demands of a fast-growing pool of former players.
Pension payments in sports have also been the subject of numerous court battles, ranging from O.J. Simpson, whose NFL pension of about $1,800 per month remains protected from the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, to Alan Eagleson, the former NHL Players Association chief who served six months in jail for fraud and theft after misallocating millions in hockey pension monies.
In other sports such as boxing, tennis and horse racing, pension plans are either grossly minuscule or nonexistent.
"Our era built the NFL, and now, they don't give a damn at all about us," said Chuck Bednarik, a Hall of Fame linebacker and center with the Philadelphia Eagles. Bednarik's monthly pension check is $1,200. "We have been completely and utterly forgotten. There are a lot of unhappy former athletes out there. What we get is just so insignificant."
Bednarik and the thousands of former players like him almost to a man do not claim poverty. But they have a very hard time seeing the leagues do so much to promote and market their collective heritages and do so little to boost player retirement plans.
The latest extension of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement will double the money paid out to pre-1968 players. Bednarik, an outspoken figure on the issue, remains unimpressed.
"This is chump change we're talking about," Bednarik said.
Pro sports' first pension began in baseball in 1947 with the Murphy Plan. Named for labor lawyer Robert Murphy, who tried to organize players into a union, retired players received up to $100 per month, depending on the length of their playing careers. The figure even then was not awe-inspiring. But it certainly beat the steel and auto industry, which at the time offered no pensions.
The NHL followed suit later that year, the NFL in 1959 and NBA in 1965. Since then, every collective bargaining negotiation between players and owners has included some talk of pension benefits. Besides increasing the basic payments, players have sought and won improvements such as lower thresholds for eligibility, benefits for surviving spouses and supplemental benefits such as annuities and 401(k) plans.
In baseball, where pension payments dwarf every other sport, the largess is largely the result of four decades of firm negotiating by what many consider the strongest union in America. Retired baseball players have generated six-figure incomes from their pensions since the late 1980s, a sum that remains significant to this day.
And the large pensions in turn require much of the same financial planning as the seven- and eight-figure salaries current players receive.
"Baseball has really been generous in this regard compared to the other sports, but the players have really gone after it over the years," said Joe Geier, an Ellicott City, Md.-based financial planner who represents pro athletes. "It's a big part of the portfolios of some guys. What I, and most in my industry, try to do is be very conservative and almost plan for the pension not being there. Obviously with salaries now, we can do that. But if we don't really count on it, avoid the early withdraw options, it's like a major bonus when they turn 62."

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