Paul Solotaroff recently wrote an interesting article for Men’s Journal titled “Casualties of the NFL,” detailing the horrendous strain professional football players put on their bodies (by choice), and the ramifications down the road of the injuries they often play through (often with the aid of copious pain medication). But what’s waiting at the end of the NFL’s billion dollar revenue generating rainbow (total League revenues now inch towards $7 billion annually) for these gridiron warriors? Often very little. The moral is that NFL agents must stress the importance of sound investment to their clients, while the income stream is current. In a league where the average career is less than five years, and where players may not have another career to fall back on (certainly not one as lucrative), the money they see on the football field may basically have to last them the rest of their hobbled lives.
Some important points from the piece:
1. In a game expected to take in $7 billion this year and that exceeds all others in causing bodily harm, fewer than 3 percent of the men who played in the league succeed in getting disability benefits. Worse, the players union (NFLPA) turns away ailing vets despite a pension fund with $1 billion in assets.
2. Twenty years ago, when linemen weighed 280, it was common for them to play on into their 30s. Now offensive tackles average 320, and a typical career lasts three and a half seasons, or just half a season more than the minimum to qualify for a pension. Nor does playing longer secure one’s finances during old age. Full pension payouts start at 55, which is around the time the average former player dies, two decades sooner than non-players.
3. Mike Ditka has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Players’ Association. “I took cortisone injections three times a week and had four hip replacements after I quit the game, but that’s football, and we chose to play hurt. We paid the price and thought the game would pay us back, but the league and union sold us out. In every sport, you’ve got your adversaries. I never thought we’d have to fight our own,” said Ditka. “It’s criminal. There’s so much money in this goddamn game, and no one gives a shit about these guys. Bill Forrester’s attached to a feeding tube, Joe Perry has to choose between eating and pain pills, and here’s this [NFLPA President Gene] Upshaw, with his $6.7 million salary, saying there’s no dough left to help them out. That’s greed talking, and nothing else.”
4. Disability claims are protected by privacy laws and thus the union doesn’t disclose who is turned down or why. However, the union says it pays out $20 million a year to 317 disabled ex-players and that many of them get the maximum benefit of $18,600 a month. But tax forms for 2006, the most recent year available, show that only 121 players receive disability, for a total of roughly $9.2 million. And according to the author, Upshaw’s “oft-repeated assertion that the money to pay these claims comes from active players,” is misleading. “Every cent of the fund is put in by the owners, although in 2006 active players reduced their annual salaries by an average of $56,000 to contribute to the fund.” Says Bernard Parrish, the former cornerback for the Cleveland Browns, “Gene lies and lies, telling the young guys today that they’ll have nothing to retire on if he pays us. It’s divide and conquer, and it distracts them from his real job, which is guarding the owners’ money.”
5. Contrast the NFL with Major League Baseball, which took in $5.1 billion in revenues in 2006 and provides 10-year veterans a maximum annual pension of $180,000. Football, by contrast, which grossed $6 billion in 2006, pays 10-year vets only about $50,000 a year. On a yearly basis, baseball pensions average three times the NFLPA’s (roughly $36,000 to a sub-poverty $12,000).
It is important to note that after this article was published, NFL owners agreed to contribute $10 million to a fund for ailing former players. And earlier this year the league—along with the Players’ Association, the Hall of Fame and the Alumni Association, pledged $7 million. However, the additional funds still do not satisfy some of the staunchests critic. Sniped Joe DeLamielleure, a Hall of Fame guard, “What’s $10 million divided by 32 owners? That’s nothing.”
— Jason G. Wulterkens