A steep price to pay
MIAMI – Mike Ditka is spitting fury and frustration, words hitting harder than a South Beach hangover.
He surveys the scene here for Super Bowl XLI, takes one look at the giant billboards, the corporate sponsors, the overflowing hotels and restaurants, the four-figure ticket prices and he doesn't see smiling faces – just old ones.
Like the one of Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler who died broke and sick and had spent time homeless, living in his pickup truck.
Or Willie Wood, a Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer, who played in the first two Super Bowls no less, currently struggling with a mountain of medical bills from myriad surgeries to repair back, neck, spine and hip problems almost all assuredly related to the violence of football.
Or Herb Adderley, another of those old Packers, who is so disgusted at his $126.85 per month pension in the face of all the NFL's profits that he refuses to wear his Super Bowl or Hall of Fame rings anymore.
When you spend your days hearing sad stories from all your old friends who helped make the Super Bowl the extravaganza it is, helped lay the foundation for a league now filled with millionaire players and billionaire owners, you don't have to have Mike Ditka's legendary fire to want to blow up at the owners, at the NFL Players Association, at the current players, at someone or something.
"It's a disgrace," Ditka said, starting to tick off his culprits. "The owners ought to be ashamed of themselves. The owners are financiers, and they are all about making money. They don't care about the history of the game.
"[NFLPA executive director] Gene Upshaw?" Ditka continued. "Come on. You can get somebody off the street to do what he is doing, and you will pay him a whole lot less. You've got [players] today making millions of dollars.
"All we are saying is we got a lot of guys that started this game that have a lot of problems health wise and mental wise. I say help them out. Help them out. Let them die with a little dignity and a little respect."
With that Mike Ditka is about out of breath. But not out of will.
Here is where the issue gets as complicated as it is emotional.
Two things are undeniable. First, many older players (especially pre-early 1980s) are suffering financially, physically and, often, mentally and emotionally. A great deal of that comes from playing the game. Second, the NFL is now awash in cash, a $6 billion industry.
The problem is that the retirement deals cut back in the day were reflective of the fiscal realities of those times. Older players look at today's Super Bowl as a cash cow and argue it wouldn't have been possible without Super Bowl I.
"You see we've got a $4 billion contract, we've got a 59-percent increase in income, franchises are now worth a billion and a half dollars and you're going, 'hey, hey, excuse me, you forgot something back here,'" said Hall of Famer Packer Jerry Kramer, who played in the first two Super Bowls.
"This era is what founded the foundation of the league."
Indeed it is. But, then again, that first Super Bowl in 1967 didn't sell out the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"The pension for the current players is quite good," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Tuesday. "And those benefits are a factor of the economics at the time. [For] guys who played years ago, the economics of the league weren't as great. Therefore their benefit package isn't what the benefit package is for the players today."
The NFL currently pays out $61 million in pension, but most of that goes to post-1977 players. The NFLPA recently upped its contributions to older players, but people such as Ditka claim it is woefully insufficient.
And while you'd love to see the NFL just step up and cover every player in need, it deserves at least some nod of respect for bucking every known trend in corporate America – rather than trying to abandon its legacy costs to retirees, it actually is upping its contributions and commitments.
"Every collective bargaining agreement we've negotiated with the players has included improvements in the pension plan for retired players," Aiello said. "Which is unusual in industry for the bargaining unit to go back and improve the benefits."
Of course, it isn't enough. Nor is the NFLPA's weak claim that it can only do so much because it legally represents only current players, not retired ones. Both the NFL and NFLPA could and should do more. Both could and should act as examples of what is right here.
That they defend their current actions says there is a lot of semantics here, a lot of buck passing, just not enough to the old players.
But the real problem here isn't exploding revenue or left-behind senior citizens – we've had that in most major sports. It is the inherent nature of the NFL, too violent, too painful, too destructive for any traditional definition of right and wrong to apply.
"Willie Wood had an operation on his high spinal column, on his high shoulders, on the narrowing of the spinal canal, on his lower back and on his hips," Kramer said of his old teammate.
"You know any one of those [surgeries] could wipe out a modest savings."
You don't have injuries like that playing basketball or baseball. You probably don't have them as a coal miner, or a lumberjack or a jackhammer operator even.
If the NFL were just any old industry – and not our national sporting obsession – it is quite possible the federal government would all but outlaw it for the safety of the workers. The NFL can provide all the helmets, trainers and team doctors it wants, but this still is a game that essentially can ruin anyone who plays it at the highest level.
"Football is a great game until you turn 45," former San Francisco wide receiver Mike Shumann told the San Francisco Chronicle in a story that detailed how at least 20 members of the 1981-82 49ers already cope with serious physical issues.
Which is why this is such an issue for the NFL. Common sense tells you that many players retire from football due to disabling injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives, be it a blown knee or the double-digit concussions. But unlike most industries, players have been unable to prove it in court, and as few as two percent of retired players receive disability from the NFL.
With near-crippling injuries suffered from this massively violent pursuit, they struggle to make ends meet on meager pensions, hit-or-miss health care and limited employment prospects.
But the NFL, as rich as it is, can't afford to have 1,000 players suddenly on disability, sometimes for forty and fifty years. The league, as a business, can't operate if it admits that so many employees who do only what their job requires – tackling, blocking, being tackled, being blocked – wind up disabled.
It is not an understatement that the entire league's existence would be at stake. The federal government would have to pass some kind of legislation protecting it from such claims so it could continue to operate. That's why the NFL vigorously fights disability claims.
Moreover, the post-retirement life of a NFL player is full of non-physical challenges. According to the Kansas City Star, two-thirds of players have "emotional problems" within six months of retirement. And eighty percent of their marriages end within four years – another huge financial drain.
The NFL now works with current players about preparing for life after football, understanding that many players arrive from coddling college programs where there was little actual education and few thoughts spent on anything but playing ball.
"We have programs in place that never existed years and years ago to help prepare players for their transition," Aiello said. "They first hear about it at the rookie symposium and then they go to their teams, and they know about all of the resources that exist to assist them in their life off the field including continuing education, internships, life skill programs."
But that is too late for the older players who often mismanaged parts of their lives. Ones such as Adderley, who was one of 324 former players including 40 Hall of Famers who (foolishly, he admits) took early retirement, which explains his pathetically low pension. Not that it would have been much better. Kramer gets just $358 per month.
But the question remains, should it really be the NFL's job to care for all these players for all these reasons?
That debate is sure to get more contentious and litigious. The former players aren't backing down. There are lawsuits and press conferences and fights to be had. Ditka is just one of the combatants. The battle promises to be long and nasty, high stakes, high emotion.
In the meantime, Ditka and Kramer can't wait. And they won't. Both are fortunate to be in good health and enjoy prosperity from post-playing careers. But they won't forget their old teammates.
"I don't know if it is anyone’s fault particularly," Kramer said. "Some guys took retirement. Some had bad information. A lot of us got [information] indicating we would die at an average of 54. A lot of guys didn't, but a lot of guys got caught in bad decisions financially or medical decisions. The medical thing has gone so through the roof."
Whatever. Nothing can change that now.
"I've got guys in the hospital, guys in homeless shelters, I've got guys who need help in days," Kramer said. "I can't believe the owners and the union won't correct this problem. [But] that's not my concern this week.
This week he is acting. Kramer, Ditka and a host of former players and franchises are holding an online auction to raise emergency money for players in need.
It's called the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund and the memorabilia and experiences are one of a kind. Ditka is auctioning his 1975 NFC championship ring. There are celebrity experiences with Harry Carson, Howie Long and Merlin Olsen. Hand-drawn plays from Vince Lombardi. All kinds of stuff.
The information for the auction and the fund can be found on jerrykramer.com.
And whether you think the NFL and NFLPA should do more, whether Ditka is right or wrong, you can't argue with the need.
The Super Bowl is upon us – a celebration of the game. But not for those whom football chewed up and forgot.