Paying The Past … Morning Cup O’Chiefs

Just how much is owed those that came before us?

That is a question that’s been asked on every level of our society as the major bubble of the American population – the so-called baby boomers – begin reaching retirement age. The futures of Social Security and Medicare are hot-button issues in the world of politics as shrinking funds must cover a pool of people that grows larger with each passing year.

So too is the past part of the discussion of the future in the world of the National Football League, where owners and players are trying to come together for a new labor agreement. Negotiations continued on Thursday in New York that will outline the distribution of the more than $9 billion a year in revenue that the game currently generates.

The main focus is on today’s players and those that will come in the future. But players from the past want to be part of the solution as well, and they established this week that they are not happy with how they have been represented in the negotiations.

That’s why they filed a class-action complaint on Monday with the Federal Court in Minneapolis that is overseeing the so-called Brady v. NFL lawsuit. The action basically states that the currently decertified NFL Players Association has improperly represented the retired players. It also asserts that the players are “conspiring” with ownership to “depress the amounts of pension and disability benefits to be paid to former NFL players.”

Sadly, just a few days later, one of their pioneers in the labor movement for NFL players passed away. Hall of Fame TE John Mackey died on Wednesday in Baltimore. He was 69 years old and put together a 10-season Hall of Fame career as one of the game’s greatest tight ends.

But sadly in his later years he was a bit of a poster boy for the effects of football on those that played the game.

Mackey struggled with dementia long before that dreaded affliction hits the average person. He was in his 50s when he began losing his ability to remember places, faces, even old teammates. He was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a rare and incurable condition that at different times left him meek or belligerent.

He ended up spending the last four years of his life in a care home. That’s where he died on Wednesday evening, largely unaware of where he was and only slight memories of his own life.

Largely through the efforts of his wife of nearly 50 years Sylvia and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the 88 Plan was created in the league five years ago. Named with Mackey’s uniform number, the plan provided $88,000 per year for nursing home care for former players with dementia or Alzheimer’s, or $50,000 for home care.

It was one of the first gestures made to former players in providing them a sliver of the current game’s riches to help with the damage caused by the collisions of football.

Now five years later, former players want a bigger slice of what has become a much bigger pie? That’s what brought about the complaint filed this week by a pair of Hall of Fame players, DE Carl Eller and RB Franco Harris. It states in part:

“The settlement talks among the Brady plaintiffs, the NFLPA and the NFL and its member clubs with respect to former NFL players was intended to, and did, circumvent and harm retired NFL players for the benefit of the NFLPA and the NFL and its member clubs. Through the settlement they are forging, the Brady plaintiffs, the NFLPA and the NFL defendants are conspiring to set retiree benefit and pension levels at artificially low levels.”

What the original lawsuit brought against the league by Elller and this new class-action complaint reveal is the former players’ lack of trust in the owners and the former players association. Mackey was the first president of the NFLPA after the merger of the AFL and NFL and he fought the owners for basic rights that were missing some 40 years ago.

Largely each labor negotiation that came after the merger was about things like the freedom of movement for players. Unrestricted free agency was finally born in 1993 and in several labor negotiations since that time the focus has been on the current players getting a greater piece of the pie.

That’s why the NFL’s average salary has gone from $800,000 in ’93 to $1,896,000 in 2009.

Along the way, the post-career benefits for players increased dramatically. In the last labor agreement a vested veteran (3 seasons of NFL experience or more), has available to him health care (medical and dental) for him and his family with no premiums for five years and then a Health Reimbursement plan that can be used after those five years.

There’s severance pay – some $15,000 per season in the league. There’s an annuity that can be claimed at the age of 35 and a savings plan that included an employer match of $22,000 maximum that can be claimed at the age of 45. There was also money available for tuition and education expenses.

All of this is over and above what the player received in salary during his career. These benefits did not trickle all the way down to those players who came into the game in the 1950-60-70s. But in many cases, NFL teams and owners were not making big money or big profits in the 1950-60s.

Some of the older players say they’ve been forgotten in the growth of the game, but that’s a dose of emotional histrionics. They have been accounted for, just not at the numbers they believe should be coming their way. Their class-action complaint noted that 3,154 former players receive a pension, for an annual outlay of $63.7 million. That’s an average of $20,197 per player.

How much more of the current riches do the older players deserve for setting the table and establishing the game? Should today’s players and owners hold any responsibility for what happened in the past?

As one might expect, there is no clear consensus on these issues. Most current players share the ignorance of youth and are going through their career with blinders and only a mirror where they can look at themselves. The older players are particularly upset with New Orleans QB Drew Brees who said several years ago in talking about former players with money problems:

“There’s some guys out there that have made bad business decisions. They took their pensions early because they never went out and got a job.  They’ve had a couple divorces.  And that’s why they don’t have money.  And they’re coming to us to basically say, ‘Please make up for my bad judgment’.”

While Brees words may have been painful, there is truth to what he said. He used the words “some guys” and there’s no question that some former players, just like a segment of today’s players, make bad decisions with their money and their lives.

Ultimately, the view from this seat is that all former players should have their medical needs covered by pro football. That is a responsibility that the owners and players should share in honoring the contributions these men made to the game. Efforts should be made to streamline the process and to make all care, especially brain and spinal care, available and plentiful to the former players.

Anything over and above that is debatable. Just because the average salary will soon be $2 million does not mean that a player in the league when the average salary was $50,000 deserves to somehow be “made whole.” That’s the lottery of birth and to penalize today to reward yesterday is a money grab.


As a tight end for nine seasons with the Colts (1963-71) and then a final year with the Chargers (1972), Mackey was the forerunner of today’s tight ends like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten – he was a blocker and a catcher. He was an offensive force that was counted on to stretch the field.

His coach with the Colts said Mackey revolutionized the tight end position.

“Previous to John, tight ends were big strong guys like (Mike) Ditka and (Ron) Kramer who would block and catch short passes over the middle,” Hall of Fame coach Don Shula said. “Mackey gave us a tight end who weighed 230, ran a 4.6 and could catch the bomb. It was a weapon other teams didn’t have.”

Mackey caught 38 touchdown passes in his career with the Colts and 13 were for 50 yards or more, including an 89-yard TD catch and run against the Rams in 1966. That was the longest scoring pass-play in the career of Hall of Fame QB John Unitas. In Super Bowl V, Mackey caught a 75-yard TD pass from Unitas that deflected off two players before landing in his hands. The Colts won that game 16-13.

He finished his 10-year NFL career with 331 catches for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns. He played only three games against the Chiefs, catching a total of two passes for 26 yards in a 1970 game in Baltimore and then a pair of 1972 games when he was in San Diego.

Mackey was drafted in 1963 out of Syracuse University, going in the second round to the NFL’s Colts and the fifth round by the AFL’s New York Jets. He was selected to play in five Pro Bowls, and was voted first-team All-Pro three times (1966-68).

In 1992, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the second tight end to be enshrined in Canton after Mike Ditka (1988).

4 Responses to “Paying The Past … Morning Cup O’Chiefs”

  • July 8, 2011  - rwh1974 says:

    All though I agree that compensation for retired players is not necessarily owed, sometimes you do the right thing anyway.When the pies that big it puts a bad face on the League and Players to not share a little more. If nothing else its a good PR move and both the Players and the NFL could use some good PR. The Corps has the policy that you never leave a man behind. It would be nice to see some of that integrity and honor in the billionaire and millionaire club thats the NFL.

  • July 9, 2011  - cychief24 says:

    Good article Bob. I agree with both the above for the most part. I just think that the money being made now should be shared with the players that paved the way. $63.7 mil is a drop in the bucket for an industry that makes $9 Bil.

  • July 10, 2011  - brainsmasher says:

    Very intelligent article, Bob. Unlike that doofus Nick Athan you sympathize with the retired players; but not at the expense of the current players.

    I remember my father taking me to a Chief’s game back in the 60′s. He had gotten some tickets from a friend of his (Roland Lakes) who played for the 49′ers. Those guys made good money for their era–much more than the average Joe.

    I wish that I could turn the clock back 30 years and instead of buying a new car every 3 or 4 years and making $500 car payments for 30 years that I would have instead bought houses; or just put the money in the bank.

    Pro football is obviously a dangerous endeavor and much more is known now about head injuries than it was back then. Medical coverage should be a given; but the game was not as lucrative as it is now. That is the luck (or lack thereof) of the draw.

    Willie Mays was making $100,000 back then. Should he or his beneficiaries be receiving $25 million a year retroactively? Of course not.

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