One of the parties very concerned about the current NFL labor negotiations, but haven’t really been in the middle of any discussion are the former players who’ve made the league what it is today.
Mike Ditka can’t see which play is coming.
Owners and players are wrangling over how to divide a $9 billion pie, while guys who used to strap on helmets and pads are struggling to get proper medical treatment. The former Chicago Bears coach isn’t sure how a new collective bargaining agreement will impact their benefits.
“I don’t know all the consequences of it,” Ditka said. “I think the people that are negotiating on both sides understand it better. I just think it’s a tragedy. Football has grown into such a popular sport and such a money-making sport. You’re talking about basically a $9 billion business, and I would hope that both sides would find a way to work it out. I think there are some things that need to be done.”
The league and players’ union agreed Thursday to keep the collective bargaining agreement in place for another 24 hours and continue negotiations, but these are delicate times for the country’s most popular sport.
Allowing the CBA to expire could jeopardize the season, which doesn’t start for another six months. Owners could lock out the players, and the players could decertify to prevent that, an ugly staredown coming at a time when revenue is soaring.
At the core of the debate is how to divide the money, but it’s not the only issue on the table.
Owners also want to increase the regular-season schedule to 18 games while reducing the preseason slate to two. A rookie salary scale is being discussed, and so are the benefits to the retired players.
That’s been a sore spot for years for old-timers who can’t afford treatment for injuries and illnesses brought on by the physical contact of the game during their playing days. Their complaints with the union have centered on pensions that they believe are too small and a disability system they believe is inefficient and flawed.
Outside groups provide some help. The Gridiron Greats is a nonprofit that has raised more than $1.75 million to provide financial grants and pro bono medical care for retirees.
“I don’t think anybody’s trying to do the wrong thing,” said Ditka, Gridiron Greats’ board of directors chairman. “I’m just not sure that anybody understands what it’s going to take. Saying it and doing it are two different things. Putting a program in place and then implementing it is another thing.”
He is looking at the negotiations with guarded optimism. Former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kyle Turley views it with less confidence.
He says he has little faith in the union, believing the players would be better off without one.
“The union has negotiated collective bargaining agreements that have provided poor and very restrictive pension plans based upon so-called credited years and when you played the game,” said Turley, who serves on the Gridiron Greats board. “They’ve given us a very biased and broken disability system. … It has destroyed lives.”
Although stars are paid well, many players only last a few years in the league and no longer qualify for the NFL’s disability benefit by the time problems arise later in life.
“I’m fortunate,” Turley said. “I made the millions of dollars, but I’m a very, very, very rare portion of the entire pie of players in the National Football League. … The majority doesn’t make the amount of money that’s sustainable to provide for renewing insurance policies, continuing to pay that and if you have major surgeries that you need – hip replacements, shoulder replacements and surgeries and knee replacements.”
The 35-year-old Turley said he has a medical file that’s “six inches thick” and wonders who will insure him when his players policy runs out in the next year or two.
He said he needs arthroscopic surgery on both knees and an operation on his right ankle. His hands are arthritic. He has little nerve activity in his right leg because of a back injury, bone chips in his left shoulder and hip problems.
Then, there are all the issues brought on by head trauma.
That includes sensitivity to light, terrible migraines, vertigo. He’s been hospitalized several times in the past few years. Although he’s in decent shape financially, he’s looking at a long line of surgeries the next two years before his insurance runs out.
“I’m very worried,” Turley said. “I’m more worried for the guys that aren’t me, for the guys that didn’t make millions of dollars.”
Ditka is concerned, too.
His right shoulder is bone on bone from wear and tear and may be replaced. His left shoulder is in bad shape, too, after a mishap trying to recently stow luggage over head on a plane. But he says he’s in decent shape, overall.
However, he shudders when he sees the way older retirees are suffering, and when he thinks about what’s in store for more recent generations.
Dave Duerson, the Pro Bowl safety on that legendary 1985 Bears championship team, committed suicide two weeks ago after going through financial problems and a divorce in recent years. His brain is being tested at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine.
“It’s hard for me to say what happened,” Ditka said. “It could have been head trauma because he had changed; he was not the same person we drafted out of Notre Dame. There’s no question about that.”
And the way Ditka sees it, there’s no doubt about this, either.
“It’s just going to get worse over a period of time,” he said. “It’s not going to get any better. And the guys who are going to start feeling it now are the guys who played in the ’80s and ’90s.”
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