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taking care of your own
the nfl needs to step up
by michelle von euw
9.12.07
sports

As you watch Peyton Manning shill for DirecTV this weekend and ponder swapping millionaire Chad Johnson for millionaire Plaxico Burress on your fantasy roster, stop and think for a moment about the billions of dollars being pumped into the NFL. The national football league just completed their most profitable scam ever -- the Preseason, in which they bilk season ticket holders for an additional two full-priced games to watch a bunch of scrubs who'll be nowhere near their regular season roster while Matt Leinart and Randy Moss sit on the sidelines, sipping margaritas.

(And in case you think that two games isn't that much, consider this -- Redskins season ticket holders now pay $100 a ticket for non-premium lower bowl seats, plus another $35 for parking. That's $235 a game for a pair, times ten games, for a team that's only had two postseason appearances in the last decade.)

Now the regular season has started, and the frenzy can really escalate, as all over America, we fans offer up sizable chunks of our salary to the National Football League, in order to watch our teams in person or from across the country, while wearing the hats and jerseys and jockstraps of our favorite fantasy running backs or our hometeam QBs, or even that kicker that won you a handful of Super Bowls before skipping town for enemy turf (as someone who's visited my closet may testify).

Because that's what we, the fans, do. Pay more for sporting events than we should, or even in some cases, can. Because we like to be there when our team wins, and we like to show other fans how much we love LaDainian Tomlinson. Most of us probably never even ponder the fact that the NFL is now a 7 billion dollar a year industry, more solvent than almost half the world's nations.

And we rarely ever think about the men who played this game before, the ones who made the game the financial, cultural, and emotional juggernaut it is today.

Most of them aren't as lucky as Dan Marino and Shannon Sharpe. They don't have cushy analyst jobs on ESPN, they don't toss the ball around in studio with John Madden, and they don't party-hop the celebrity golf tournaments and $200-a-pop autograph sessions.

No, the vast majority of the NFL's emeritus are like Mercury Morris and Mike Webster and John Mackey and Gene Hickerson and Alex Webster, former athletes whose names may not be instantaneously familiar the way that Montana and Theismann and Namath are. Men who devoted their lives to the game long before even your team's worst player earned more than your local cardiologist, men who brought the game to national prominence, and men upon whom the door to not just wealth, but comfort and a decent health plan, was shut.

Look up any of the names mentioned above, and you'll find hard-luck stories of escalating medical bills in the face of a variety of illnesses and problems, many of them stemming from injuries first encountered in their playing days, of a pension plan with payouts as low as $450 a month, of sixty-year-old men with the bodies and health problems of eighty-year-olds.

Football is a brutal, brutal game. The men who are strong enough to accept its punishments year in, year out, are often utterly destroyed. And as awful as the stories of arthritis and hip replacements and skeletal damage are, it's the high rates of dementia among former athletes that really drives home the point that this game isn't just tough on the body, it can often destroy the mind.

None of what I'm writing is new. In fact, it's become almost fashionable for the various sports and popular media outlets to tout the plight of the former NFL player, in part because of Harry Carson's excellent 2006 Hall of Fame induction speech calling attention to this issue.

Sadly, the response from the NFL was barely audible, and the players union representative, Gene Upshaw, has chosen to treat the issue as a joke, issuing personal attacks against the former retired players he's done such a rotten job of representing. Upshaw and his wealthy cronies point to the small funds that have been established and the incremental increases in the NFL pension plan, which in many cases barely covers a former player's medication, never mind living expenses.

And while there's evidence of owners and players assisting specific retirees on a case-by-case basis when approached, many of the men are too proud to make the type of plea on their own behalf. They are football players. They are tough, they stubborn, and they don't ask for help. And besides, the issue is larger than that: what the NFL needs to do is devote a teeny, tiny fraction of their multi-billion dollar budget into providing a sustainable pension plan and lifetime health insurance benefits for their former players across the board.

In so many ways, football is the most ideally run of all our major sports: the organizational and financial aspects of the game are so practical, so uniform, that so many of the problems that plague, for instance, major league baseball, just simply don't exist. Which makes the NFL's reluctance to address this issue particularly puzzling.

After ten years, three Super Bowl rings, and an estimated 30 concussions, Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson called it quits. He suffers from depression and extreme neurological problems, including permanent brain damage and early signs of Alzheimer's. He's undergone hospitalization, battled addiction to the stimulants he's used to try to cure his ailments, and suffered radical personality shifts that are most likely caused by the trauma he sustained during his NFL career. And in two years, under the current NFL rules, his health insurance will come to a complete halt.

Ted Johnson is 34 years old.

Maybe he made smart financial decisions, and perhaps he tucked away some of his high-dollar earnings from the heady days of his career. But it's doubtful he'll have money to cover what are bound to be soaring medical expenses or even his rent for the rest of his life, if the indications from the interviews he's given are correct, and Ted Johnson will never be able to earn another paycheck, primarily due to the beatings his body and his brains took while earning me Super Bowl bragging rights.

I'm complicit in this as anyone; I buy New England tee-shirts and send my husband off to Redskins games on Sundays throughout the fall, and we the fans have no problem cheering for the type of crushing blows that send Troy Aikman into the announcer's booth and make Brett Favre look like an old man at the age of 37. The NFL has proven that it's only willing to take the most baby of steps to adjust the way they treat the former players; current players have shown a collective lack of attention to this issue, or changing the status quo.

Maybe facing the bitter reality of the post-gridiron lifestyle of many of their compatriots is too much of a glimpse into an unwelcome future than many of today's iron men want to face. Maybe by acknowledging the rotten things this sport can do to a man's body would somehow seal their own bleak fates.

Whatever it is, the men who play and run this game have to start taking responsibility for their own.


ABOUT MICHELLE VON EUW

Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw

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COMMENTS

jael mchenry
9.12.07 @ 5:36p

Holy crap, this is all news to me. The whole healthcare industry is starting to freak me out, and certainly pro football serves as an extreme example -- if you don't have an employer, you don't have coverage, and if you don't have coverage, you are so insanely screwed.

This is the flip side of those high salaries. Sure, you get salary, but only for so long and then it's gone. It's like being a lottery winner, and we've all heard the tales of lottery winners whose lives have gone into the toilet after their wins. Normal life with a steady income may not be as sexy but it's sure as hell easier to manage on an ongoing basis.

robert melos
9.13.07 @ 4:33a

Jael, normal life isn't much better when facing these things. I've been living a lot of the medical problems mentioned here through my mother for the past two and a half years. My mother was lucky. When my father died in July of 1989 his insurance coverage of my mother continued. Had he died one month later she would've had 90 days to find or begin paying for her own coverage. That coverage would have come out of what pension my mother received from my father, $393 a month.

An inexpensive elder care insurance such as AARP is around $172 a month as a supplement to Medicare for those over 65. Prescription plans do help, but you also, on many plans, pay for your meds up front and get reimbursments in a month or two. You can get up to 80% back, but if, as in my mother's case, your scripts run between $750 and $1000 a month you're dipping into your savings.

Between Social Security and my father's pension my mother makes just short of $1400 a month. When you take most of the costs of medicine, daily living, and other sundry expenses, any savings you might have, including equity in your house or other investments, are rapidly depleted.

If men who made what many considered good money 20 and 30 years ago are facing these financial problems think of what this is doing to those who earned no more than $18K to $25K all their lives.

dan gonzalez
9.18.07 @ 4:13a

Joe*, a goddamn Redskins fan of all things, is pretty lucky because he obviously married the hottest dude that ever played fantasy football.

You mentioned Mercury Morris for chrissakes, that is very uncanny for one born with more than one X chromosome...

You're right, though, Gene Upshaw is a whore, but that's because he's a union slug, and unions can never afford to worry about the extraordinary cases, all they can do is box the lowest common denominator in and bargain on that damnably amoebic group's behalf.

Upshaw, like all socialist plutocrats, has top-notch healthcare despite the fact that the NFL has lame fuckers hobbling all around him...

Anyway, good rip here. Your next one, if you truly love sports, should be about how awesome the Indians are, why they are America's current underdog team and the last hope for baseball purists everywhere, and how the BoSox are now the new Yankees and therefore we all must root against them with every fiber of our souls.

GO TRIBE!

jason gilmore
9.18.07 @ 11:03a

And the NBA isn't really much better. The only real difference is that, of course, the physical toll of basketball isn't as tough as the NFL. I know George Mikan complained about this for years. And then he died. And then Shaq -- out of the kindness of his heart -- paid for his funeral.

It's sad. How greedy people are. It's not like they don't have the money to spare.



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