Victims of self-neglect

The NFL Players Association heard the latest round of complaints from its former players Tuesday when a group of Hall of Famers led by Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers voiced their displeasure with the union's handling of pension benefits in a hearing before the U.S. Senate.

Amid the back-and-forth between the retired players and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, one question remains: Why has it taken so long for this heavily-debated issue to come to the forefront?


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The simple answer is that for a long time, players barely spoke up about what they wanted. Worse, many of them gave little regard to their futures.

"We barely had a union when I got started," said former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Manny Fernandez, a key cog of the team's defense during their 1972 undefeated season.

"We weren't even thinking about fighting for a pension, benefits, disability. … My first year (in 1968), we were talking about going on strike because we didn't want to take prop planes anymore. We were tired of taking trips across the country that would take 10 or 12 hours and you'd have to stop halfway to refuel.


The tension between some retired players and Gene Upshaw has led to a whole new level of ugliness. Among the many papers Bernie Parrish keeps is a copy of the autopsy report on Upshaw's ex-wife.

Jimmye Lee Hill-Upshaw died in 2002, more than 15 years after the couple's divorce. Her skeletal remains were found under a fence on rural property in Oklahoma four months after she was initially reported missing. Hill-Upshaw, 59, was mentally ill and did not have a permanent resident at the time of death, according to a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

Although the death was odd, investigators do not believe foul play was involved. Parrish has wondered and spread his concerns to other former players via email and his blog.

"Why wouldn't they have at least questioned Upshaw?" Parrish said. "Why wouldn't they have given him a lie detector test to see what this was all about?"

Upshaw has dealt with talk like this for years and responded to Parrish's remarks with disdain.

"Anyone who would go to the extreme to bring the death of my ex-wife into this is lower than a snake's belly and he's a liar," Upshaw said. "My ex-wife and I had a son together and he's still affected by this. I can't believe someone would bring this into it."
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"Here I am, an undrafted guy who just made the team and I'm talking about going on strike and not having a job. If we had done that, I probably wouldn't have had a career. Luckily, (former Dolphins owner) Joe (Robbie) gave in on that one."

A year after Fernandez was fighting for better transportation, Curt Flood was leading Major League Baseball players in the fight for free agency.

The point? While many retired football players are roaring like lions these days as they criticize the union in a push for more player rights, most of them spent their careers acting like lambs.

"I understand the plight of a lot of former players and we all have compassion for what a lot of guys are going through," said Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers in the late 1970s. "But I can also say this about the situation: I remember being in the meetings as a player and if you ever brought up the idea of pension and benefits, you were shouted down. What everybody would say is, 'All we need is free agency and the rest will take care of itself.' "

Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure played at the same time free agency was reaching baseball and has spent much of the past year publicly criticizing Upshaw. He strongly believes the NFLPA needs a union head with a labor law background like baseball has had with Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr.

Yet, when DeLamielleure played with the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns from 1973-85, he didn't stand in the way of a fellow retired player such as Upshaw leading the union.

"All those guys in the past wanted to talk about free agency, but nobody was willing to stick their neck out to get it," Upshaw said. "Now that we have free agency, all the retired players want to benefit from it."

While so much attention has been focused on older players, younger guys also have found themselves in dire straits in part because of their inability to plan ahead.

Former offensive lineman Brian DeMarco, whose career ended in 2001 because of disabling back and elbow injuries, has become a poster boy for the plight of ex-players. Miscommunication and red tape have not only left DeMarco, 35, in constant pain; they have also left him unable to work and caused his family to be homeless three times in the past four years.

"You come into the league, you're young and you see that shiny shield of the NFL and it's all you ever dreamed about being part of," said DeMarco, who played with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals from 1995-99. "You're young and you think you're going to play forever. You're not thinking about getting hurt.

"I thought the union was there to protect me and I would never have to worry about whether my injuries from playing, my health, would be taken care of."

The average NFL player receives an annual pension of $12,000 compared to $36,000 for major league baseball players, according to statistics cited by former Cleveland Browns player Bernie Parrish, who helped negotiate a pension and benefits package in 1962.

Parrish, who has twice led dismissed class-action lawsuits against the union that sought to investigate perceived financial abuse by the NFLPA, has referred to Upshaw as "nothing more than a puppet" for the NFL and the owners to control.

"The mismanagement has been horrendous," Parrish said. "All we want the owners to do is to fulfill what they agreed to in 1962 and because of Upshaw, we can't do that."

Other former players counter that assertion by saying that the NFL was not designed to be a life-time annuity, a guarantee of financial stability.

"The NFL pension is an asset that, if managed well by the player, is very beneficial," said former player Stan White, who played from 1972-82. "I wish some of my brethren were as concerned about their pensions when there were playing and had a chance to directly impact them as they are now asking today's players to do it for them."