Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Shame of the NFL: why won't they help Sick ex-Players?

Again: i don't always agree with Wally Matthews, but he is on point here!
From Newsday

Wallace Matthews
Shame of the league
January 31, 2007

When Tiki Barber retired from the NFL at the end of this season, he did more than walk away from his career at the top of his game. He also walked right onto Gene Upshaw's enemies list.

There is simply no other way to describe the behavior of that spineless mockery of a union, the NFL Players Association, or the attitude of its president, also known as Roger Goodell's -- formerly Paul Tagliabue's -- lapdog, toward its former members.

As exposed by HBO's "Real Sports" last week, and illustrated by my colleague Shaun Powell's heartbreaking column about John Mackey yesterday, once a player is done with the NFL, the NFL is done with him.

This week is the NFL equivalent of Mardi Gras, a week of happy horsecrap about the League That Can Do No Wrong.

But a handful of former players, Hall of Famers all, are not swallowing the Kool-Aid the rest of the country seems to be drunk on. While most of the NFL media is being distracted by the temptations of Super Bowl Week, Jerry Kramer, Harry Carson and Mike Ditka, to name a few, will be speaking truth in a hotel conference room a few hours before Upshaw gets his chance to lie about how great everything is.

They have long known that The Shield, as the players refer to it, is a league that eats its young, and the NFLPA is a union that discards its old. And tomorrow, they want the rest of the world to know it.

As Kramer said, "It will not be a pleasant task. But then, it's not pleasant to talk to Bill Forester [a Pro Bowl linebacker on Kramer's Green Bay Packers teams of the mid-60s] and hear that he's suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia and pneumonia, that he needs a feeding tube to survive, and that he can't get any money from the Players Association to help him."

Nor is it pleasant to consider the case of Willie Wood, a Hall of Famer now destitute, living in a nursing home and needing to rely on a trust fund for retired players set up by Ditka, of all people, in order to survive; or to think about a former New England Patriot, whose name is being withheld to preserve his privacy, living on the street, nor to consider the future of Carson, now 53 and suffering from post-concussion syndrome, the result of at least 15 game and practice-related concussions. Will he be the next John Mackey or Andre Waters?

This is the stuff the NFL never wants to talk about, but especially not now, when everyone is paying attention to what is universally regarded as the world's most lucrative and best-run sports league.

Upshaw did not return a call yesterday, but as he told the Charlotte Observer recently, "They don't hire me and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary."

Clearly, there's no help there, so after their news conference, the players will stage an auction of items from their personal collections, many of them prized possessions, to raise money for the thousands of players who can't, or won't, go to the union for help.

"These are proud guys, and a lot of them are too embarrassed to ask for help," Carson said. "But for them to even get to the point where they have to beg for assistance, that really -- me off."

Thankfully, Carson does not need the $700 or so a month his NFL pension would pay him if he applied for it. But it enrages him to think of Herb Adderley cashing an NFLPA check for $126.85 a month -- that is not a misprint -- and it really infuriates him when Upshaw crows about increasing all benefits this year by 25 percent.

"Great, now Herb will get $150," Carson said.

For a league that receives $3.1 billion a year for its television rights alone, it is an incredibly chintzy way to do business. Of the 9,000 retired NFL players, only 144 receive disability benefits and the league has never lost a lawsuit brought by a former player seeking help.

"You really do need to be crawling on the floor to qualify for disability benefits," Carson said. "They just deny, deny, deny, and hope that it all goes away."

Kramer said he hopes the auction will raise between $250,000 and $500,000, with all proceeds to be distributed as soon as possible because "we got guys who need help right away."

The NFL is providing nothing but the hotel room, because to deny the retired players a place to speak out would have garnered even worse publicity than what they will say.

But that is where The Shield's commitment ends.

"They told us they had so many requests for help, they didn't know who to help first," Kramer said. "So they decided to help nobody."

For the NFL, it is business as usual. Profits through the roof. Heads in the sand.