NFL retirees await benefits of CBA negotiations

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CHICAGO (AP) — Mike Ditka can’t see which play is coming.

Owners and players are wrangling over how to divide a $9 billion pie, while guys who used to strap on helmets and pads are struggling to get proper medical treatment. The former Chicago Bears coach isn’t sure how a new collective bargaining agreement will impact their benefits.

“I don’t know all the consequences of it,” Ditka said. “I think the people that are negotiating on both sides understand it better. I just think it’s a tragedy. Football has grown into such a popular sport and such a money-making sport. You’re talking about basically a $9 billion business, and I would hope that both sides would find a way to work it out. I think there are some things that need to be done.”

The league and players’ union agreed Thursday to keep the collective bargaining agreement in place for another 24 hours and continue negotiations, but these are delicate times for the country’s most popular sport.

Allowing the CBA to expire could jeopardize the season, which doesn’t start for another six months. Owners could lock out the players, and the players could decertify to prevent that, an ugly staredown coming at a time when revenue is soaring.

At the core of the debate is how to divide the money, but it’s not the only issue on the table.

Owners also want to increase the regular-season schedule to 18 games while reducing the preseason slate to two. A rookie salary scale is being discussed, and so are the benefits to the retired players.

That’s been a sore spot for years for old-timers who can’t afford treatment for injuries and illnesses brought on by the physical contact of the game during their playing days. Their complaints with the union have centered on pensions that they believe are too small and a disability system they believe is inefficient and flawed.

Outside groups provide some help. The Gridiron Greats is a nonprofit that has raised more than $1.75 million to provide financial grants and pro bono medical care for retirees.

“I don’t think anybody’s trying to do the wrong thing,” said Ditka, Gridiron Greats’ board of directors chairman. “I’m just not sure that anybody understands what it’s going to take. Saying it and doing it are two different things. Putting a program in place and then implementing it is another thing.”

He is looking at the negotiations with guarded optimism. Former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kyle Turley views it with less confidence.

He says he has little faith in the union, believing the players would be better off without one.

“The union has negotiated collective bargaining agreements that have provided poor and very restrictive pension plans based upon so-called credited years and when you played the game,” said Turley, who serves on the Gridiron Greats board. “They’ve given us a very biased and broken disability system. … It has destroyed lives.”

Although stars are paid well, many players only last a few years in the league and no longer qualify for the NFL’s disability benefit by the time problems arise later in life.

“I’m fortunate,” Turley said. “I made the millions of dollars, but I’m a very, very, very rare portion of the entire pie of players in the National Football League. … The majority doesn’t make the amount of money that’s sustainable to provide for renewing insurance policies, continuing to pay that and if you have major surgeries that you need — hip replacements, shoulder replacements and surgeries and knee replacements.”

The 35-year-old Turley said he has a medical file that’s “six inches thick” and wonders who will insure him when his players policy runs out in the next year or two.

He said he needs arthroscopic surgery on both knees and an operation on his right ankle. His hands are arthritic. He has little nerve activity in his right leg because of a back injury, bone chips in his left shoulder and hip problems.

Then, there are all the issues brought on by head trauma.

That includes sensitivity to light, terrible migraines, vertigo. He’s been hospitalized several times in the past few years. Although he’s in decent shape financially, he’s looking at a long line of surgeries the next two years before his insurance runs out.

“I’m very worried,” Turley said. “I’m more worried for the guys that aren’t me, for the guys that didn’t make millions of dollars.”

Ditka is concerned, too.

His right shoulder is bone on bone from wear and tear and may be replaced. His left shoulder is in bad shape, too, after a mishap trying to recently stow luggage over head on a plane. But he says he’s in decent shape, overall.

However, he shudders when he sees the way older retirees are suffering, and when he thinks about what’s in store for more recent generations.

Dave Duerson, the Pro Bowl safety on that legendary 1985 Bears championship team, committed suicide two weeks ago after going through financial problems and a divorce in recent years. His brain is being tested at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine.

“It’s hard for me to say what happened,” Ditka said. “It could have been head trauma because he had changed; he was not the same person we drafted out of Notre Dame. There’s no question about that.”

And the way Ditka sees it, there’s no doubt about this, either.

“It’s just going to get worse over a period of time,” he said. “It’s not going to get any better. And the guys who are going to start feeling it now are the guys who played in the ’80s and ’90s.”



About Jeff Nixon

Jeff was a first team consensus All-American from the University of Richmond in 1978. He is 7th in NCAA history with 23 career interceptions. Played for the Buffalo Bills 1979-1984. Led the team with 6 interceptions in Rookie Year. Holds Bills record for 4 takeaways in a single game - 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Tied Bills record with four consecutive games with an interception. After 5 knee surgeries Jeff retired from pro football in 1985. He worked for 13 years (1988-2000) as the Youth Bureau Director for Buffalo and Erie County. He has worked for the past 11 years as the Youth Employment Director for Buffalo. Plays guitar and was voted best R&B guitar player by Buffalo Nightlife Magazine in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Posted on March 4, 2011, in NFL Alumni News. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Raymond Brown

    Standing on the sidelines and looking at 9 billion dollars owners and todays players are fighting over really goes over well, with the ticket buying fan? It also is not going over well with retired veterans,as we watch on a weekly basis,a fellow NFL Brother die or commit suicide because of a lack of healthcare or an inadequate pension.This tragedy also filters down to affect families, as a father and breadwinner is lost The George Webster journey brought tears to my eyes and pissed me off. We have a number of retired players suffering and I would hope and pray they are not forgotten during negotiations for a new CBA by owners and players. Remember guys you could be in that same position 10 or 20 years down the road. Mike Tyson, over his illustrious boxing career, made over 900 million dollars, and look at him today. Money can disappear very quickly over time.

  2. George Visger

    It’s getting to the point the NFL can no longer deny their industry is hazardous to it’s employees health, and the NFLPA needs to realize it is cutting into the already short life span of an NFL career (If you can call 3.5 years of average service a career.) It’s time to quit the saber rattling on both sides and get it done before we have more Dave Duersons.

    We may need to spank both the NFL and NFLPA’s leaders little seven figure salary butts and lock them in a room till they get it done.

    George Visger
    SF 49ers 80 & 81
    Survivor of 9 NFL Caused Emergency VP Shunt Brain Surgeries
    Benefactor of ZERO NFL Benefits

  3. I might be wrong but I see the likelehood of a lockout by the owners fading as quick as a $1.00 dollar tee shirt.They simply have lost their leverage with the Judge’s ruling earlier this week in Minnepolis denying their access to the pool of TV money. That was their defacto insurance policy to make it through a lockout of the players. The owners preemptive filing of an unfair labor practice charge against the players was filed because they fully intended to lockout the players when they still had access to the TV money.

    The comments by President Obama on the potential lockout although vague also will also hold both parties to the table.

    The players now have the leverage to get this deal done! My question is does thier leadership at the bargining table have the vision to stand up and speak for all NFL players both past and present when the final deal if crafted ? The time is now and the moment is upon them to do so !

    There are many creative ways to honor the former players legacy and take care of those in need right now. My God if they can’t find a way to sort through the billions on the table then they could even get the fans involved in this by just adding as little as a .50 cent surcharge to the cost of game ticket dedicated to the NFL Alumni health and disability issues.

    Now take it a step further to get the needed money with the owners and the players agreeing to equally match that formula from their end of the equation.

    Once the Alumni pension, health and disability fund hits an agreed upon level then sunset the contribution.

    I just throwing that out there as an example that if there is a Collective will to truly take care of the Alumni then it can and should get done .

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