Retired players tackle issue of higher pensions

Pro Football

July 25, 2006|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

Almost 40 years after he served as president of the NFL Players Association, former Chicago Bears center Mike Pyle is preparing to make a last-ditch stand against the union he helped build.

Pyle, 67, is among a large contingent of disgruntled retired NFL players seeking significant pension increases under the league's new collective bargaining agreement.

He was scheduled to catch a flight from Chicago today to participate in a closed-door session of 75-plus retired players, most from Baltimore and Washington, to hear from a third-party actuary at Goucher College.

This, Pyle admits, is nothing like his old wars against NFL ownership when he was NFLPA president in 1967.

"It's a lot different fighting against your own," he said. "That's what's different for me. Owners never wanted to allow us to do anything."

The latest chapter in the battle between retired players and their old union will unfold at Goucher, where Baltimore actuary Tom Lowman tries to answer questions that the NFLPA so far has refused to answer.

In what amounts to a fact-finding mission, the former players hope to learn whether the union can afford to give them more than a promised 10 to 20 percent boost, as well as other critical actuarial information.

Retired players have been at odds with the union since executive director Gene Upshaw said in an interview in January that he doesn't represent them. Labor law dictates that he can only represent current players in the union, not retired players. The upshot produced growing animosity between the two camps.

"I don't know if paralyzed is the right word, but we're kind of stuck on an issue that we may be able to do something about, and maybe not," said Jean Fugett, a Baltimore native, lawyer and former tight end for the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. "There's a lot of emotion that's been attached to this. We're trying to get the facts."

The retired players are particularly upset by the way pension funds are distributed. Players who retired after 1997 receive $425 per month per credited season, while players who retired before 1982 get only $200 per month.

In a business that generates $6 billion a year in revenues, retired players think they should share in the financial jackpot current players are enjoying.

"I think everyone should benefit, if not equally, certainly proportionately, to what is happening today," said Bert Jones, a quarterback for the Baltimore Colts from 1973 to 1981. "Had there not been the '58 championship game between the Colts and Giants that brought TV to the sports arena, would we be where we are today? ... The history and tradition of the game is vital to its success."

Fugett, who was recently voted president of the steering committee for retired players, said his group will support "any initiative that helps former players." At the same time, he recognizes that a lot of retired players need help to cover health costs.

"Most of us are out here living on our wife's health insurance," said Fugett, a diabetic. "I'd rather have health insurance than [more] money."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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