Cowherd: Widows of NFL legends deserved extended benefits sooner

  • The last photo of John and Sandy Unitas before he died in 2002 of a heart attack. The couple was in Vero Beach, Fla., Sandy Unitas said.
The last photo of John and Sandy Unitas before he died in 2002…
July 18, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

I think we can all agree the NFL is one of the greatest money-making machines of all time.

The 32 teams generated close to $9 billion in revenue last year. Forbes magazine puts the average team's worth at $1 billion.

Commissioner Roger Goodell makes $20 million a year. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees signed a five-year contract worth $100 million. Ray Rice just agreed to a five-year, $40 million deal with the Ravens.

I could go on and on. But you get the point. If you're anywhere in the NFL's orbit, you're probably not standing in soup lines. The money that gets tossed around is ridiculous.

And that must absolutely fry people like Sylvia Mackey and Sandy Unitas, although they're both too classy to say so.

Maybe you saw the recent announcement: the NFL and the players' union finally agreed to extend the so-called "Legacy benefits" to some 320 widows of players who played before 1993.

Basically, it means the widows will get an estimated $600 to $2000 a month on top of the pension money they're already receiving.

For folks struggling to make ends meet or dealing with serious medical issues, that's "life-altering money," said Bruce Laird, the former Baltimore Colt safety and president of the Fourth and Goal foundation, which advocates for retired players and their families.

And get this: the extended benefits for the widows will cost the league and the NFLPA all of $15.2 million, chump change for a business generating $9 billion a year.

Which is why widows like Mackey and Unitas, while relieved, are shaking their heads and asking: what in the world was the holdup?

"It's a shame it took so long to get done," said Sandy Unitas, whose husband, Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas, played 17 seasons for the Colts and died of a heart attack in 2002.

"It's the best news ever," said Mackey. Her husband, Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, played nine seasons for the Colts and died last July after suffering dementia for years. "It's changing 320 lives. . . . But if the money was there, why did it take so long to get it to us?"

Right, that's the question. Maybe a bit of history is in order here.

After a long struggle by NFL retirees, the Legacy benefits for older players were finally negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association last summer.

But for some reason no one seems able to pinpoint, it excluded some 320 widows of NFL retirees who died before August 4, when the CBA went into effect.

Laird says when Goodell was informed of this, he immediately assured Fourth and Goal the situation would be rectified.

"This is going to be fixed," Sylvia Mackey says Goodell told her.

But the commissioner also said the players union had to sign off on any amendment to the CBA. And the union sure took its sweet time doing that.

Which is why both Laird and many of the widows mainly blame NFLPA foot-dragging for the year-long delay in getting them their benefits.

"Don't forget the NFLPA is a multi-million dollar union, too," Laird said.

(How could we forget? DeMaurice Smith, their leader, got a $1 million bonus — to go along with his salary of $2.5 million — for his work leading up the CBA signing. )

No matter which side is to blame, it was a shabby way to treat the widows. And how ironic is it that two are the widows of Unitas and Mackey, who did so much to make the NFL what it is today?

Unitas? All he did was become an NFL icon, maybe the greatest quarterback in the history of the game. He broke all kinds of passing records and won three championships. And he was brilliant in the "Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 title game against the New York Giants that basically put the NFL on the map.

He was also an early champion for the league's older players, who he felt never got the money or benefits they deserved.

"His last contract with San Diego was for" $250,000, Sandy Unitas recalled of her husband's desultory final season with the Chargers. "He didn't want to go. He said: 'Honey, I just can't afford to turn it down.'"

And Mackey? All he did was revolutionize the tight end position with his greatness. And he was the very first president of the players' union after the NFL and AFL merged, a man who fought tirelessly for better salaries and benefits for the players.

Do any of today's players even know it was Mackey who instigated the anti-trust lawsuit that helped eliminate the "Rozelle rule" and paved the way for free agency and the million-dollar contracts players enjoy today?

No, probably not. And even if they did know, I'm not sure they'd care.

Not many seemed to care much about the 320 widows, that's for sure.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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