NFL teams treat underpaid trainers as second-class citizens

John Steadman

July 17, 1992|By John Steadman

Something is terribly distorted in the National Football League. It's a situation defying logic, reason and -- bottom line -- intelligent judgment. The most important individual to any team, without argument, is the trainer, although owners, general managers, coaches, in cases manifested by repugnant egos, would try to tell you differently.

Salary figures of trainers, which heretofore were never publicized, have been revealed for the first time at a court hearing. The information is an embarrassment. More than that. A downright disgrace. Trainers in the NFL, according to the testimony, earn a yearly average of $63,462.

That's a smaller pay check than the lowest salaried player. But the daily care and welfare of an entire squad is under the jurisdiction and judgment of a trainer. Any job profile would have to include the element of responsibility, which is immense; the long hours in the training room with little recognition, plus being subject to the whims of a head coach. Then, too, there's no guarantee a share of playoff monies, or even a Super Bowl ring, if a team is so fortunate, will come to a trainer. Post-season compensation is left to the "discretion" of the club owner. If the trainers ever formed a union and pulled a strike on game-day there would be an enormous number of players unable to take the field. Ticket holders would be justified in asking for refunds.

It's a situation that is so regrettable and unfair it needs to be addressed, post-haste. Hopefully, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue will direct immediate attention or inform the trainers via an intra-league message that he will soon try to improve their lot. If not Tagliabue then the Players Association. But the trainers should not continue to be neglected, or left in limbo.

The problems should be examined and an effort made to upgrade their status. In the matter of pay, let's offer examples of what was disclosed in the case of the Players' Association vs. the NFL, as presented at the antitrust trial in Minneapolis. There are for-instances in the inequitable pay category:

Trainer Ralph Berlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a four-time Super Bowl winner, is reported to make $48,300; Lindsey McLean of the San Francisco 49ers, another successful team, makes $56,710; and Brad Brown of the Houston Oilers is at $41,000. McLean, for instance, has in his care Joe Montana, who takes home $3.25 million per year. Yet he is entrusted with a valuable property and makes a comparative pittance.

The NFL's highest paid player is Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins and the man who worked to keep him functioning was trainer Bob Lundy. Now to contrast Marino and Lundy: The player made $4,433,000 and the trainer, caring for an entire squad, approaching 50 in number, received $51,796. After 27 years with the Dolphins, it was surprising when he "resigned" and the new man is Ryan Vermillon.

The only year Lundy didn't work with the Dolphins, until the present, was 1973. That followed their perfect record season, when he left to sell real estate but then returned. It was said the reason he took a temporary leave, as it turned out, was because of a financial difference with owner Joe Robbie.

The esteemed trainer of the Baltimore Colts, the late Eddie Block, said he wouldn't have been able to live his late years in comfort had it not been that two players, Alan "The Horse" Ameche and Gino Marchetti, convinced him to invest in their restaurant chain and, thus, the dividends from the stock enabled him to enjoy retirement and pay his bills.

John Lopez, who was the Colts' trainer after Block, and later quit to take over directorship of the Towson Medical Center, has followed the plight of athletic trainers both in an out of the NFL. "Very few trainers make what assistant coaches get paid," he said. "It's a farce that continues to be perpetuated. There is a trainers' society that's more fraternal and shares technical information.

"At one time, trainers were included in the players' pension plan but the league was upset after one of the strikes and recommended the trainers withdraw from the union and go in with the regular pension plan that covers secretaries and other individuals in the front office. Trainers are extremely loyal and, without a doubt, high-type men." Lopez was asked that since the plight of trainers receives such little notice, could there be other points that need correction? "Yes, trainers and team doctors are the only employees required to have college degrees. Players, coaches and executives don't have to be board certified. We do. There are only 28 head training jobs. They are coveted. A lot of the trainers just don't want to 'rock the boat', which is why you don't hear complaints."

On the basis of reputation -- and only that -- the Washington Redskins, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns offer trainers first-class treatment. But, for the most part, they are overworked and underpaid. A sad commentary.

Trainers, besides the physical treatment they provide and the time put in trying to rehabilitate injured players, also play a role in the mental aspect of a team. They sometimes help in being a buffer, easing tensions and allowing the athletes to be primed mentally, as well as physically, for a strong performance.

It's admirable that trainers are so deeply involved. They want to administer to ailments and have a love-of-the-game concept that draws them to the business, but they shouldn't be taken advantage of individually. Compared to salaries lavished on other employees, NFL trainers are treated as second-class citizens. That shouldn't be.

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