NFLPA announces pension improvements

Care costs will help players such as Mackey

July 28, 2006|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

Back in May, while fretting over her husband's health-care costs and his advancing dementia, Sylvia Mackey wrote an impassioned letter to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue seeking help.

Yesterday, the letter and her prayers were answered.

In conjunction with an announcement on pension improvements, the NFL Players Association said it will pay the cost of providing up to $88,000 per year for institutional care or up to $50,000 per year for in-home nursing care for retired players who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's disease, regardless of age.

"I'm thrilled. This has changed my life," said Mackey, whose husband John was a Hall of Fame tight end for the Baltimore Colts from 1963 to 1971.

"When you think of down-the-road, having to put up $70,000 to $100,000 a year for a nursing home, or have a lawyer show you how to spend down to qualify for government programs ... not having to face that anymore is like putting dignity back in my life."

After John Mackey, 64, developed frontotemporal dementia, an affliction similar to Alzheimer's, Sylvia had to return to work at age 56 as a flight attendant to cover health-care costs. Mackey's monthly NFL pension of $1,950 didn't stretch far enough.

"Everybody with Alzheimer's or dementia reaches a point where they cannot be taken care of at home," Sylvia said. "When I saw what the costs are, I went to support group meetings and read everything I could. The realization is creeping up on me faster than I can believe."

In response to her poignant letter, Tagliabue assigned Mike Haynes, vice president of player and employee development in the NFL, to monitor the situation and offer help. More than that, Haynes, a Hall of Fame cornerback, was heartened by Sylvia Mackey's courage.

"She's such a courageous lady," Haynes said. "When the commissioner sent me the letter, I was so touched by her words and sincerity. I said to her I was glad the commissioner asked me to help. I felt honored to help John Mackey, one of my idols."

The dementia program will be called the Number 88 Plan in honor of Mackey, who wore No. 88 with the Colts. The league also will fund research into the disease.

Yesterday, Sylvia sang Tagliabue's praises, calling him a "wonderful man." She said as a result of the funding, "We're looking at not losing our home."

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the pension upgrades will cost approximately $120 million per year, raising the annual cost of NFL player benefits to $700 million a year.

Those enhanced benefits, which become official after active players ratify the contract in September, include:

The pensions of players who retired before 1982 will be raised by 25 percent -- or a minimum of $50 a month -- and by 10 percent for players retiring after 1982.

Benefits for widows and survivors of a player who dies before his retirement benefits begin will triple.

A Health Reimbursement Account will be created for current players for use when their NFL health insurance expires. The account could run as much as $300,000 to pay for medical expenses for a 12-year veteran.

"No question a 25 percent increase is significant for pre-1982 players," said Jean Fugett, who played for both the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins and is now the president of the steering committee for retired players. "Those are the guys who need help most. We need to thank current players for remembering us."

Said Stan White, a former linebacker and union leader with the Colts: "I'm very satisfied with what we got, considering we had no legal right to anything. What we're getting is based on a moral obligation that today's players feel toward the players who built the game into the cash cow it is now."

Not everyone was celebrating the announcement, however. Bruce Laird, a former Colt who led the Baltimore chapter of retired players' efforts to get increases, said in a statement he was proud of the effort, but was disappointed the increase was limited to 10 to 25 percent.

Laird also was concerned that his Baltimore chapter was told in a Tuesday night meeting with NFLPA executives that "negotiations were still pending."

Doug Allen, the union assistant executive director, said the union was awaiting approval from federal court in Minneapolis before making any announcements.

"It didn't surprise me the next day to find out we got court approval," Allen said. "All sorts of things could've blown up in the last minute. I don't want to go to somebody and say it's in concrete and then yank the rug out from under them."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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