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NFL adversaries try to resolve retiree funding

Times Staff Writer

Every year, professional football donates tens of millions of dollars to community organizations, charitable groups and other nonprofits. But IRS filings show that only a tiny percentage of that funding is earmarked for charities that can specifically help former NFL players who’ve fallen on hard times.

That rankles a growing number of these aging warriors, who are engaged in a bitter and increasingly public battle with the NFL establishment over the plight of the men who made the game what it is today. Some retirees are struggling with financial and medical problems and are blaming pension and disability plans for having fallen short.

This afternoon the battle moves to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the NFL Players Assn., where chief Gene Upshaw will be host of a closed-door meeting with a handful of former players and representatives from the league and NFL-related charities. The group will include NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has outlined plans for a coalition that would help former players in dire need.

Former New York Giants star Frank Gifford, 76, who helped found the union, will be at today’s meeting. Gifford is glad all sides are finally sitting down.

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“Something’s not right here, and everyone -- the league, owners, former players and fans -- all need to get involved,” he said.

A number of former players say it’s about time.

“It’s hard to say this without sounding like a jerk, but it’s a slap in the face to retirees when there’s $80 million for Pop Warner football, but not enough for people in dire need,” said Brent Boyd, who was a guard for the Minnesota Vikings between 1980 and 1986 and ties his inability to hold down a job to having suffered so many concussions during his playing days.

Boyd received $5,000 from a charitable trust operated by the NFL Players Assn. several years ago when he was homeless and has said he is grateful. But the 50-year-old former UCLA star said the cash-rich sport must do more.

“Charity begins at home, right? But I guess the camera opportunities are not good for the league when they’re having to deal with homeless, crippled ex-players.”

That football’s charitable giving practices are under attack is just another measure of the growing anger among retired gridiron stars, including Hall of Famers Herb Adderley, Mike Ditka and Sam Huff.

The meeting follows months of pitched rhetoric.

Early last month, for example, Upshaw, who became the NFLPA’s executive director in 1983 and was reelected in March, fired back at one of those aging veterans, Joe DeLamielleure. A fellow Hall of Famer, DeLamielleure has been sharply critical of Upshaw over retiree benefits. That criticism prompted Upshaw to tell the Philadelphia Daily News last month: “A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me, you think I’m going to invite him to dinner? No. I’m going to break his ... neck.”

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Within days of that comment, a House subcommittee hearing was called to look into the escalating battle.

Goodell, already dealing with cases of player misconduct, would not comment on Upshaw’s threatening words but made it clear he wanted a solution. A few days before that House hearing, Goodell called for today’s meeting and Upshaw later agreed to play host.

But it was in that hearing on Capitol Hill that Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) zeroed in on the heart of the matter, asking why only 3% of past and present NFL players receive disability payments even though “half of all players retire because of injury [and] 60% of players suffer a concussion.”

Also expected to attend today’s meeting are representatives from pro football’s four main charities -- the NFLPA’s Professional Athletes Foundation, the Hall of Fame’s Enshrinee Assistance Foundation, the NFL Alumni Dire Need Charitable Trust and NFL Charities.

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According to the most recent IRS records available, these four had cumulative assets of about $27 million in 2005. That year, the reports indicate, the groups distributed about $11 million.

But they are dwarfed by the NFL Youth Football Fund, a separate entity jointly funded by the league and union that promotes the game at the grassroots level. As of March 31, 2006, the fund reported $79.6 million in assets and, between 2001 and 2004, donated $87.5 million to youth and scholastic football programs nationwide.

Former players interviewed for this article generally lauded the league and union for supporting youth-oriented charities. But some also faulted football for failing to show more empathy for old-timers facing severe financial and medical problems.

And some are taking action.

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Former Green Bay Packers star Jerry Kramer recently created the Gridiron Greats Assistance Foundation. Ditka operates his own charitable organization, and Bruce Laird, who spent most of his career with the Baltimore Colts, leads Fourth & Goal, a nonprofit that assists needy NFL retirees.

Laird, who was not invited, doubts that today’s meeting will lead to substantive change.

“They’ve had many, many years to address this problem, and they continue to hide from it,” he said.

Bernie Parrish, another vocal critic, also is not invited.

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“We’ve got people living in storage units and other guys in dire need,” said Parrish, who has created a nonprofit, Retired Players for Justice, an advocacy group. “And the league says, ‘We’ll fund flag football,’ to the tune of $100 million or whatever. They keep saying they want to make the world a better place, but that seems to mean as long as they keep all the money, the world is a better place.”

Upshaw repeatedly has defended the union’s pension and medical disability plans, as well as its charitable record.

“Last year, this office contributed $1.2 million to 147 needy players,” Upshaw said.

The grants helped to cover such financial needs as housing costs, medical bills, burial expenses and tuition. So far this year, the NFLPA has distributed $250,000 through the Players Assistance Trust, a charitable operation funded by the league and union.

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The NFLPA and the NFL also have funded the 88 Fund, which provides financial support for former players diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, medical conditions that many retirees believe to be a direct result of constant hard hits absorbed while playing the game.

Since the 88 Fund rules were published early this year, the NFLPA has approved 35 applications, Upshaw said, and expects to quickly clear 19 additional requests for the grants that can total up to $88,000 a year for players who are institutionalized.

In an ironic twist, old-timers also benefit from the NFL’s string of embarrassing moments because a portion of fines assessed against active players is forwarded to the NFLPA’s Professional Athletes Foundation and distributed to retirees.

According to IRS documents, the foundation had $12.9 million in assets at the end of 2005 and in that year distributed $1.2 million in grants to former players and to youth-oriented groups.

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Two of the other nonprofits at today’s meeting have little in the way of financial assets.

One is the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinee Assistance Fund, which had about $117,000 in assets at the end of 2005, according to IRS documents. It distributed less than $20,000 to needy Hall of Famers during the two-year period that ended Dec. 31, 2005.

The fund’s donations “quadrupled” during the past year, however, according to Hall of Fame President Steve Perry, who credited an outreach program that identifies and assists needy Hall of Famers. Former Los Angeles Rams lineman Tom Mack and former Buffalo Bills lineman Billy Shaw, both Hall members, recently agreed to serve as liaisons.

Simply having money available isn’t always enough, Perry said, because many former players “try to do it all on their own as a matter of pride.”

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The second is the NFL Alumni Dire Need Charitable Trust, which reported about $886,000 in net assets at the end of its fiscal year on March 31, 2005, according to an IRS filing. During 2005, the trust made $92,718 in grants to “provide financial assistance to former NFL players and coaching staff members suffering from financial and/or medical hardship,” according to the filing.

Then there is NFL Charities, the best known and largest of the four nonprofits. It reported $13 million in net assets as of March 31, 2005, and that year steered $6.5 million in grants that focus largely on education and youth services. The nonprofit also funded sports medicine research and foundations created by current and former players.

Yet professional football’s charitable works extend beyond the four main organizations that will attend today’s meeting. Each year, for example, the NFL donates broadcast time with a value of about $30 million to the United Way. Various NFL alumni chapters also raise money for charity through golf outings, and hundreds of current and former players operate nonprofits that draw financial support from the league and union.

Some owners and teams also operate nonprofits. A foundation created by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for example, reported $20 million in assets at the end of 2005. And the Cleveland Browns Foundation reported $446,000 in assets at the end of that year.

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Perry, the Hall of Fame president, said today’s meeting could lead to the creation of a “cornerstone” upon which a strong charitable alliance can be built.

“One of the best ways to address the issues that have been raised is by a collaborative effort with all of the parties working in good faith to do the best that we can,” Perry said.

Yet even the player roster for this meeting -- including Roger Staubach, Willie Lanier and Jack Kemp -- has sparked controversy because the most vocal critics won’t be there.

“Does that surprise you?” asked Parrish, 72, who has filed a civil lawsuit alleging financial misdealings by leadership of the union he helped to establish decades ago while playing defensive back for the Cleveland Browns.

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Kramer knows there is anger.

“Some of the guys said I shouldn’t attend,” he said, “but I tell them that we’ve been trying to get them to talk for more than a year, so I’m going to go and listen.... But these guys are not going to go gentle into that good night if we don’t come away with some good solutions.”

Gifford, for one, is determined to find a solution.

“There’s enough money in this game, with more coming in all the time,” he said. “Everyone will feel a lot better about it when they do it.”

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Times staff writer Larry Stewart contributed to this report.

greg.johnson@latimes.com


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