July 05, 2011
Judy Battista of the New York Times detailed the lawsuit brought against the NFL and NFLPA by a group of retired players who feel their needs aren't being met, or even addressed, in the current CBA bargaining sessions. This is a very slippery slope for this group, which already has a current legal alignment with the Brady v. NFL suit. The new class-action complaint goes after the league, the NFLPA, and the specific players in Brady v. NFL, claiming that all parties involved are "conspiring to depress the amounts of pension and disability benefits to be paid to former N.F.L. players in order to maximize the salaries and benefits to current N.F.L. players."
"We feel we have a seat at the table, but we're having the chair pulled out from under us," said Michael Hausfeld, the Washington lawyer representing the group led by former Minnesota Vikings great Carl Eller (pictured above). Franco Harris, Marcus Allen and Paul Krause are other names among the represented.
It's easy -- and correct -- to feel for the game's greats from previous eras. They had the misfortune to play at a time when players had nothing close to the leverage they do now, primarily because the league's revenues were nowhere near what they currently are. But there's a harsh reality this group will have to face, either now or later. Not only will the complaint likely get tabled or shut down in court (filed at this late hour as it is), but public perception will almost certainly swing to the notion that this is a group of "bitter old guys" who are trying to stick a wrench in the works of a supposedly impending CBA agreement that fans desperately want. A very high percentage of those fans do not care about the line-item issues; they just want their football back.
In addition, it's possible that the retired players may be twisting exclusion from the current negotiation process into a perceived lack of interest in their needs. The people I've talked to that are involved in that process would likely be horrified to learn of that opinion (though many on the NFLPA side probably wouldn't be too surprised by it). The league and the NFLPA each have a debt to those players. They have an obligation to never forget the horror stories of former players driven to poverty, loneliness, madness and death as a result of the physical demands of the game they played and the ridiculously low benefits those players have received as a result of disadvantageous negotiations through the decades.
However, it should be understood that both sides do realize that responsibility. It's long been known that a large percentage of the dropoff in annual player costs from a proposed rookie wage scale — which has been estimated at anywhere from $250 million to $300 million — would go to increasing benefits for retired players. The main point of contention in previous months was that the NFLPA wanted numbers on a contract, and the owners preferred more of a verbal (i.e., non-binding) agreement. But that's an important point to note, and it feeds a more complex one.
While the NFLPA feels a need and a responsibility to represent retired players, one of the things those players want is their own representative entity. They no doubt feel that they'll have more of a powerful voice if it's brought to the table in their own legal dialect. But the sad truth is that from a marketplace perspective, retired players will have a very tough go when trying to argue that they have legal standing in the current system.
As Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) succinctly noted in "Platoon," "There's the way it ought to be, and there's the way it is." By trying to complicate an already difficult battle, and separating themselves from the current Players Association in the process, the retired players are treading a very thin line between those two ideas.
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