July 15, 2011
Albert Breer of the NFL Network reported on Friday morning that aside from a few financial details, the owners and players are in line on the financial particulars of a new collective bargaining agreement. But one of the last remaining hang-ups is how the benefits for retired players will be funded. Part of that money will come from the roll-off in the rookie wage scale — anywhere from $200 million-$300 million annually will be available for various constituents, and most of that money will go to the Legacy Fund.
But no matter how much is allotted, and how much the owners agree to match (they'll have to do so to some extent), it's fair to say that the retirees, led by Carl Eller's advocacy group, are not at all happy with the process, and the way they feel they've been excluded from it. Retired players technically have no legal standing in this process, but from an ethical perspective, even the most parsimonious owner must understand the NFL's current obligation to the game's former greats.
The problem now is that at the same time the retirees are aligning themselves with the NFLPA in their continued fight against the NFL for the benefits they feel they deserve; they've also sued the players' association because, in the words of attorney Michael Hausfeld, "We feel we have a seat at the table, but we're having the chair pulled out from under us."
From a legal view, the suit was an 11th-hour noisemaker and little more, but it did speak to the understanding gap between current and retired players. When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees recently said that some retired players have created their own difficult realities, you knew there was going to be some blowback.
"There's some guys out there that have made bad business decisions," Brees told USA Today in late May. "They took their pensions early because they never went out and got a job. They've had a couple divorces and they're making payments to this place and that place. And that's why they don't have money. And they're coming to us to basically say 'Please make up for my bad judgment.' In that case, that's not our fault as players."
Former Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer, who may be the greatest eligible player not currently in the Hall of Fame, took exception with that in a recent interview with Green Bay television station WBAY:
Drew Brees(notes) is stupid. He's young, ignorant, has no experience and doesn't know what the hell he is talking about. Life brings a lot of different things at you, and Drew hasn't seen any of the bad ones yet. He's been fortunate, but there are a lot of different reasons out there why guys can't hold on to their money and it's not really our position to judge whether they should have held on to their money or not. They need help. Let's try and help them turn it around and get them going again. Let's not say, 'Hey, go bury yourself or climb in a hole because we don't owe you anything.' There is a lot of reasons why guys need help, and if a guy needs help, I think, it's my responsibility to try and help, not figure out what he should have done or where he should have gotten a different education or what his momma should have told him a long time ago. If I were as smart as Drew Brees I would know all of that stuff, but I don't.
To be fair to Brees, he did outline that responsibility later in his interview:
"They shaped the game for us," Brees said. "Because of those guys, we have an opportunity to play this game, to make the money that we make, to get the benefits we get. We will always, always, always reach back to give to those guys. But there's a way to do it."
Brees is a good guy by all accounts, and I have no reason to believe that he doesn't mean that from the bottom of his heart. It's more the difference in perception between the two sides — the retired players want a seat at the table at all times, and the current participants (both owners and players) will need to see their concerns as more than ancillary. That won't happen with the current ill will, but perhaps when the new CBA is in place and attention can be turned to other things, the league's upcoming unprecedented prosperity can be used in part to heal old wounds — both literally and figuratively.
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