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Bucking the system

Normally, Jon Arnett would have been in Los Angeles last weekend to celebrate his pro football heritage. Yup, right here in the city that has no pro football, isn’t in the club and may never again know the secret handshake.

Arnett chose to stay away in protest.

“I am anti-Rams, and anti-NFL,” said Arnett, an All-American running back at USC who played in the NFL for 10 years, seven with the Rams. “The league has 32 owners, and I think they are a bunch of whores.”

These sentiments came from somebody who, in his prime, was Walter Payton-esque in his ability to make other players look silly trying to tackle him. He played in five Pro Bowls and is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

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Arnett is 72, lives in Lake Oswego, Ore., after many years in Palos Verdes, and still is active in a food distribution business that brings him to Los Angeles at least once a month. He is not an old guy who has lost it. He has a daughter who is a junior in high school, and the only thing he has retired from is the L.A. freeways.

Arnett boycotted a Rams reunion, a celebration of 70 years of team existence that was organized nicely by Merlin Olsen and Robert Klein and brought together hundreds of former players for a Saturday night dinner and plaque presentation that afternoon that commemorated the reunion. The plaque went up in the Coliseum’s peristyle end, on a pillar across from a plaque for Rams hero Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch.

Arnett meant no disrespect to Olsen or Klein or any of the former Rams. He even wrote them an e-mail, saying that a sciatic nerve injury made it difficult for him to travel.

“I pretty much used that as a valid excuse,” he said.

Arnett’s wife, Jane, did not join him in the boycott. She came, and her mission was more than social. She made the rounds, greeted old friends and took down some names of former NFL players, Rams or non-Rams, who she was told might be unable to get proper medical insurance or medications.

“Jon and I have watched this happen, watched retired players who just don’t have enough,” she said. “It is so sad. I hear from wives, and the stories they tell are heartbreaking. One wife of a former player -- somebody whose name you would know immediately -- is in so much pain and can’t afford to do anything that their life is miserable and his wife didn’t know what to do. She went to a counselor and he told her to leave him. She’s not going to do that. She loves him.”

The Arnett plan is much more than talk. It has a name, Retired Professional Athletes Assn. (RPAA), and a funding plan.

“We have talked to many corporate sponsors, some of them Fortune 500 companies, and none of them connected to the NFL,” Jane Arnett said.

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Right now, the RPAA has offices at the Arnetts’ dining room table. Jane Arnett joked that it would be nice if the NFL, which has generally treated older alums on the pension and medical insurance issues like unwanted relatives in rest homes, would step up and give them back their dining room.

Husband Jon doubts that eventuality, adding the chilling thought that, if the NFL just continues to ignore these issues for another 10 to 15 years, they will go away.

“We’ll all be dead,” he said.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has scheduled a meeting for a week from today. He said it would include “all parties.”

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When that phrase was used in a recent column in The Times, another former NFL star, Bernie Parish, responded angrily that Goodell and the NFL would never include “all parties” in this process. Presumably, Parish, among the more militant on these issues, did not expect to be included.

Olsen, one of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome who went on to further fame and fortune as a TV star, said, “Bernie Parish doesn’t compromise, and you won’t get one with him in the room.”

Olsen said he is willing to fight this fight for his NFL brethren, but his medical situation is taken care of. He said that when he was about to retire from pro football, he and his lawyer negotiated an exit package that included medical benefits for life, if needed.

“When my body starts breaking down, I need a new knee or hip, and my regular insurance doesn’t handle it, this will,” he said. “Never had to use it, and hope I won’t, but I’ve got it in writing.”

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Olsen said there were others who did the same, but frequently, when they needed to use the insurance, their team would offer a cash buyout instead, and most took that.

Saturday’s ceremony was a chance to show off the venerable old Coliseum once again. That went well, except for one strange moment. When the plaque was unveiled, standing right there alongside a handful of Rams greats, was Rams President John Shaw.

Shaw, of course, cut the deal and was on one of the first buses out of town when the Rams departed Southern California for St. Louis.

He may be a Ram, but he’s damn well not a Los Angeles Ram.

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Situations such as that are precisely why Arnett stayed home. Shaw is employed by owner Georgia Frontiere, and that’s a close enough connection for Arnett to validate his decision.

“I cannot imagine any former player wanting to pay homage to her in any way,” Arnett said.

So the fight goes on, and the filthy-rich NFL looks worse and worse in the public while it appears to stonewall writing some checks to help its heritage.

“Jane and I have identified more than 300 former players who are struggling, who really need help,” Arnett said. “Some of them need to do things like skip breakfast so they can pay for their pills.”

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Maybe next week, the NFL will start to swallow some of this responsibility. Maybe the league will make some sort of commitment to fix this.

And, as we all know around L.A., if the NFL makes a commitment, well ...

Never mind.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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From: Jon Arnett

To: Los Angeles Rams teammates

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Subject: July 10 e-mail

... I find it rather difficult to honor anything that has the present-day stamp of NFL approval and franchise ownership. It is a completely different culture than that which I knew ... all revenue directed.

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For the entire text of Arnett’s letter, go to latimes.com/sports.

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