In death, legendary
But in this 2011 season forever defined by the longest work stoppage in
Mr. Mackey was the first president of the NFL Players Association following the NFL-AFL merger. Called "the smartest man in the room" by former
Teammate and former union president Ordell Braase said, "We were a fractured group until John began putting permanence in [the union's] day-to-day operations, He had a vision for that job, which was more than just putting in time and keeping the natives calm. You don't get anything unless you really rattle the cage."
Mr. Mackey also went to court and won an antitrust lawsuit that ended what was known as the "Rozelle Rule." The "Rozelle Rule" dictated that any team that lost a free agent was entitled to receive "equal compensation" from the player's new organization. Mr. Mackey flattened the Rozelle rule in court like it was an undersized defensive back, which set the legal precedent to win true free agency in the sport. In other words, if every one of today's players sent 10 percent of their paycheck to the John Mackey family, it still wouldn't equal the cash flow he opened up.
Mr. Mackey paid a price for his activism, traded from the Baltimore Colts to the
But the man who first drew a line in the sand around issues of safety and benefits then became the sport's most visible victim. Football is a brutal game, where players last 3.4 years on average and, according to one study, die 20 years before the typical American male. Few people had to live with the scars of this sport for longer and with more visibility than John Mackey.
In a widely reported story, during the 2006 season, Mr. Mackey became enraged and disoriented watching Colts wide receiver
His wife Sylvia was a profile in courage during this ordeal, working full-time as a flight attendant and saying to the press, "I take everything in stride. I stay upbeat. When I hear other women in the same position, it's so easy for it to beat them down. I don't get sad, though. I can't." As former Sun sportswriter Rick Maese wrote in 2005, "It's not easy to figure out just how Sylvia does it — she's working full time and parenting her aging husband. It all seems so frustrating, but you don't get that from talking to Sylvia. It seems like she just doesn't have time to get sad."
Since that time, the league and the NFLPA together started the "88 plan" — named after Mr. Mackey's uniform number. The "88 plan" provides $88,000 a year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care for players suffering from brain damage.
John Mackey's death is a tragedy that should remind us of both the price paid by players past for decent wages and benefits and the price every player pays once the cheering stops. As the NFL owners continue to insist on longer seasons and benefit cuts, we should all remember that it's the players who bear the scar tissue of America's 21st century pastime.
No one should have to be martyred to play this game. Every player now bears an obligation to carry the memory of John Mackey forward so no family ever has to bear the weight that his family was forced to bear with such remarkable grace.