NFL's short memory reflected in retirees' wallets

September 24, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Why retired baseball players receive what is believed to be far more lucrative pension payments than their counterparts in professional football is a question that continues to disturb such former players as John Unitas, Ordell Braase and others who believe they deserve parity - at least.

The payments in baseball are often double what football players receive. "It's not just that some of us in the Baltimore Colts alumni chapter are disillusioned, but players such as Roger Staubach, Pete Retzlaff, Milt Plum, Mike Pyle and others have expressed themselves the same way," said Braase, a former president of the players association who has all but dedicated himself to upgrading the pension plan, regardless of the length of the fight.

From a Baltimore perspective - yet a similar comparison also could be drawn almost anywhere else - Unitas, who played 18 years in the NFL, receives a gross pension of around $45,000, which he waited until he was 65, two years ago, to begin collecting; Brooks Robinson, a veteran of 23 seasons with the Orioles; Carl Yastrzemski; Willie Mays, and numerous other former major-league players receive a pension in excess of $100,000 yearly.

In regard to Unitas and his long service, this hardly seems equitable. The NFL owners and its clubs are pocketing profits from sold-out stadiums the public paid for, charging personal-seat licenses (a form of extortion), collecting parking fees, concession monies, broadcast rights and income from merchandising caps, jerseys and souvenirs.

Yet it has shown little financial regard for the players who provided the surge in the game's popularity, those yesteryear heroes who often went both ways - offense and defense - but earned less than $4,000.

Minimal health benefits are provided the old pros of football, but baseball extends more extensive coverage if the ex-players pay one-third of the premiums. "We don't have anything like Blue Cross or Blue Shield," Unitas said. "Some players who were in the league before I got there in 1956 are up against it. One old-timer, a great player in his day, is living in a trailer because he can't afford anything better."

An organization in which club owners and executives avail themselves of hired limousines (it has turned into a limousine league) have forgotten in too many instances where the league came from and how it got to its present state of affluence - trading off the ability of its players, many of whom have died at what seems a premature age or else are ailing with serious injuries related to their football-playing years.

The NFL Players Association has conducted a survey among 1,090 retired players, and more than half reported they suffered concussions that have contributed to present speech, hearing and concentration problems.

A continuing concern of the NFL players rides with the pension issue - the variance between themselves and baseball. Their figures, based on the vested years of 1983 through 1992, show a wide discrepancy.

The latest study by the Pro Football Activist Committee, based in Riderwood, Md., reveals that after five years of playing, a man is entitled to $13,800, paid monthly, but a baseball player participating for the same period is entitled to $32,232.

Pensions in baseball are generally twice that of football, according to the figures made available. Unitas took exception to a story in "Touchback," a publication for retired NFL players, that portrayed the belief that ex-baseball players are not doing as well as one might believe. Such a contention was written off by the office of the retired NFL players association in its official newsletter.

Unitas contacted an official of the group in early August asking for a clarification, but so far has not received a reply. "The validity of such a comparison is highly questionable," he wrote. The pro football players association, as an example, cited the pension of former pitcher Sam McDowell, who, it said, after interviewing him, would receive $44,000 a year for his 15 seasons, while an NFL player of similar career length in the same time frame would get $44,992.

Unitas contests the point and says it creates "a false impression of equality." Braase, a Colts defensive end for 12 years and a former president of the players association, advanced the suggestion that linking variable benefits to investment performance would enable former players to keep pace with the buying power of the dollar.

"For example, studies show that what $1 purchased in 1960 takes $5.63 today," he told the players association. "Applying that formula to the initial $60 a month pensions benefit in 1960, today's benefit should be in excess of $300."

Braase contends the players association should follow baseball in setting up an independent study - not in-house - that would lead to doubling pension income for the other sport.

Fact-finding by a neutral committee is what he's after, and that seems more than a fair way to proceed. "I think we are at the low end of the priority list," Braase said. "We don't have innovative thinking with the pension. They throw us a bone and believe we'll be satisfied."

The players associations receive cut-rate medical benefits, which individuals must carry as their personal responsibility. Dental care has been added to the program by the football players association. It's the rare ex-football player who hasn't required dental repairs, whether he used a face mask or not.

The NFL has become one of the richest of all sports for club owners. Maybe those owners' conscience doesn't bother them, which is believable considering how they dupe the fans and take advantage of their loyalty, but the working force - the players - deserve more than they're getting.

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