Szymanski, Tagliabue are working to better status of NFL veterans

John Steadman

January 31, 1992|By John Steadman

The National Football League and NFL Alumni Association had gone their separate ways for much too long with a non-working relationship that became counter-productive. That has now changed. The two have moved closer together, which is a more ideal arrangement for all concerned.

The former players and the league they once played for have gotten together and settled differences, real or imagined. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Dick Szymanski, executive director of NFL Alumni, came to an understanding that best serves the interests of both organizations.

In truth, the alumni deserve to be aligned with the league rather than traveling a divergent course. Credit Szymanski with bringing about a solution in talks with the commissioner. Szymanski, perhaps the most talented two-way player in the 35-year history of the Baltimore Colts, later worked as the team's personnel director and general manager.

Tagliabue recognized the game's performers from bygone eras could best be helped if the league resolved problems that existed under an earlier alumni administration headed by Vic Maitland.

"I have true belief Commissioner Tagliabue has a deep fondness for the players who contributed in the past to the success the NFL knows today," said Szymanski. "He wants to do what he can to be of help and certainly this action is proof positive."

What Tagliabue and the league will be doing is providing a minimum of $2.5 million to the alumni over the next five years. A grant of $500,000 will be made annually. NFL Properties, the merchandising arm of the league, and NFL Charities, the league's charitable foundation, now will be involved directly with the former players.

A minimum guarantee has been made to the association that will be accrued through the sale of apparel and souvenirs. NFL Charities will make direct contributions to a fund that cares for players in dire need and to widows of pre-1959 players not covered by the Bert Bell Pension Plan.

It's possible individual retirement benefits also will be improved, but that will come later.

"Widows of pre-1959 alumni members weren't included after their spouses died and this was grossly unfair," said Szymanski. "That needs to be corrected and it will be."

Another area Szymanski wants to deal with specifically is extending the pension plan to include players who went off to World War II, Korea or Vietnam and were unable to resume NFL careers upon their return.

"It's not an overwhelming number, but if a man played before he entered the military and wasn't able to rejoin his team after he got out of service, because of injury or age, it's unfair to summarily exclude him," Szymanski said. "That will be addressed."

And from still a different angle: The way the rules of the association are written, if a player receiving $12,000 in pension payments becomes a victim of dire need, then he's not eligible for extra financial awards. This, too, will be remedied.

Of the yearly $500,000 the league pays the NFL Alumni, half will be allocated for the administration of its headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the rest directed to caring for the pension inequities Szymanski talked about.

What about improving the modest pensions pro football veterans are now receiving? Will that be done?

Szymanski can't say, but he is aware of how the players feel on the matter. More importantly, Tagliabue wants to help and, in subsequent years, an upgrading of pensions seems likely. In some instances, baseball pensions are more than triple the size of what ex-pro football players receive, and this is a matter of ongoing contention.

NFL owners in 1987 instituted a $40 million program to include more than 750 alumni who played before 1959. They have since received monthly checks based on years of NFL service. Tagliabue issued a statement that is pleasing to all NFL alumni when he said:

"I believe this landmark agreement indicates the league's appreciation for its pioneer players. The NFL in the '90s owes its strength to those players who today may not be as strong as they once were, both physically and financially. The NFL clubs again are reaching out to assist these players."

It all came about because Tagliabue and Szymanski were able to establish a rapport and talk the same language. The NFL Alumni, as a matter of fact, needs the league -- rather than vice versa. The two never should have operated as independent entities, almost rivals, but a once-testy situation has been resolved for the ultimate good of all.

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