By Ken Murray
December 12, 2007
Even as Dr. Les Matthews, the chief of orthopaedics at Union Memorial, and Dr. Frank Ebert, the associate chief, formally celebrated making the cut on the NFL's joint replacement team, they acknowledged that they had no idea who or how many were coming.
What they know is that Union Memorial is one of 14 medical centers nationwide selected to participate in the newly created NFL Player Care Foundation, which will provide access to world-class medical technology and financial assistance to vested players who need it.
The program will be funded by the NFL Alliance - consisting of the league, NFL Players Association, NFL Alumni and Pro Football Hall of Fame - and is the league's latest response to complaints of neglect from former players.
"We're pleased that the NFL has taken this step," Matthews said during a news conference. "It's part of a multifaceted approach that they've taken to recognize the needs of some of these players, and we're equally pleased to be involved."
Negotiations with Union Memorial had taken more than six months. The hospital is in the fourth year of a five-year agreement to work with the Ravens, and Matthews has several former players as patients.
"None of [my patients] have spoken specifically to me about the program, nor am I sure the players I have are going to be eligible for this program," Matthews said.
All players who are vested qualify, however. Vesting requires three credited seasons of at least three games for players in the league after 1992, four years for those between 1973 and 1992, and five years for those before 1973.
Even the union isn't sure of the number of players who might seek replacement surgery.
"We don't know how many players are out there," union spokesman Carl Francis said. "It's something that will be on an ongoing basis. We're hoping we can assist a number of players who may need this in the near future."
Dr. Lew Lyon, vice president of MedStar Sports Health, said the contract runs three years and MedStar's professional resources are contracted for at least two years. The NFL also selected Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.
"A lot of it may be contingent upon utilization of services," Lyon said of the longevity of the program here. "The Baltimore-Washington area, in talking to the NFL, isn't as pronounced as it would be in Florida, California or Texas with retired players. ... But they felt is was imperative to have somebody in this area."
Dr. Andrew Tucker, the director of sports medicine at Union Memorial and team physician for the Ravens, said the program doesn't distinguish between a pre-NFL injury and one that happened in the NFL.
"It's kind of hard to tell sometimes whether the arthritic process started due to injuries long ago, or whether it was due just to involvement in the professional game," Tucker said. "This program doesn't discriminate in respect to that."
Players who want replacement surgery first apply to the league, then are evaluated at one of the 14 medical centers. There are two payment plans. Players without insurance can receive a grant from the Player Care Foundation to cover everything, including rehabilitation and travel and hotel costs.
Vested players with insurance can participate in the league's employee benefit plan, which provides for 20 percent of the cost of the surgery (an average joint replacement surgery is $25,000) up to $5,000.
Yesterday was an eventful day for retired players. In Minneapolis, at least five active players joined Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Kyle Turley in pledging at least part of their game checks for Dec. 23 to retired players.
At the same news conference, Mike Ditka, one of the most outspoken critics of the NFLPA on disability and pension issues, made a substantial contribution to the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.
He issued a check for $25,000 and announced that he would dissolve his Hall of Fame Assistance Trust Fund after a discrepancy in how much money was being used to help retired players.
Ditka said he will split his fund's balance of more than $600,000 between Misericordia, a residential facility for developmentally disabled youth, and Gridiron Greats.
That $300,000 gift "puts us two years ahead of where our planning was," said Jennifer Smith, executive director of Gridiron Greats.
Smith also said Ditka's organization had given her group about $153,000 the past few months for players in need.
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