A BREAK-NECK PLACE
It was difficult to imagine how the war of words between dissident retired NFL players and their former union could get much hotter.
That is, until NFL Players Assn. Executive Director Gene Upshaw suggested last week in an interview what he’d like to do to fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame member Joe DeLamielleure for complaining about the modest union-provided health and pension benefits awarded to some NFL retirees.
“A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me, you think I’m going to invite him to dinner?” Upshaw said. “No. I’m going to break his ... damn neck.”
Whether Upshaw’s comment was trash-talking akin to the barbs tossed across the line of scrimmage or a botched attempt at describing his frustration with attacks by disgruntled veterans, the widely distributed comment sparked an angry response from former NFL players.
“You can’t do that in high school, much less at a union in a $7-billion industry,” said Bruce Laird, a former Baltimore Colts player who leads an activist NFL retirees group in Baltimore. “How can you comment on that other than to say ‘Oh, my God.’ He’s supposed to be the CEO of a major union, for God’s sake.”
DeLamielleure, the former Buffalo Bills right guard who blocked for O.J. Simpson during the 1970s, said Tuesday that he was taking Upshaw’s threat seriously: “He scared ... my wife, my six kids and my four grandchildren. One of them, who’s only 6 or 7, said, ‘Someone’s going to break Grandpa’s neck?’ That’s disgusting.”
DeLamielleure, a 56-year-old businessman who lives in Charlotte, N.C., isn’t the only angry NFL old-timer.
There’s also Herb Adderley, the former Green Bay Packers star who refuses to wear his Hall of Fame and Super Bowl rings.
Don’t look for Adderley in Canton or in any other place that celebrates the league where he played cornerback for more than a decade. “I feel no allegiance to the NFL,” Adderley said. “I’d never be an ambassador for the NFL. I stopped going to different [NFL] functions because I’m embarrassed.”
Adderley’s football boycott stems from a long-running feud with the NFLPA over his $176.85 monthly pension check -- a figure that was reduced because Adderley opted for a poorly designed early retirement plan that subsequently was eliminated.
“I won’t go to the poorhouse because of this,” said Adderley, 67, who recently retired after selling his share of a cable television business in Philadelphia. “But what hurts me is that I know friends and former teammates who are hurting because they receive even less than me.”
Upshaw, who did not respond to requests for an interview Tuesday, said last week that the NFLPA doesn’t get credit for the financial support it provides through expanded pension benefits and charitable giving.
Old-timers such as Adderley who opted for early retirement can receive $175 or less a month. But the union has voluntarily increased monthly payments for retirees and today’s players can receive $49,860 a year after 10 years in the league. They also earn severance pay and some retiree medical benefits.
Most of the disputes involve the benefits to 1960s-era players.
Some former players are considering protests during the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in August and are gathering signatures from fans to draw attention to what they view as low pension and medical benefits. Two players recently filed a class-action lawsuit alleging financial irregularities by the NFLPA. Still others are producing DVDs that relate poignant stories of former NFL players who are wrestling with serious financial and health problems.
The growing unrest underscores how a complex dispute over retirement benefits threatens to mushroom into a public-relations nightmare for the multibillion-dollar industry that the NFL has built, partly based on the popularity of the game dating to Adderley and other old-timers.
“The question is, how much noise can this really generate?” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “If you share the plight of these players with the typical NFL fan, is it going to create outrage?”
Rather than waiting to find out, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on May 22 tried to defuse the situation by creating an alliance to deliver medical care to former players in dire need. But some high-profile NFL alumni are taking a wait-and-see stance on the proposed alliance between the NFL and the NFLPA.
Former All-Pro NFL player Conrad Dobler, who has feuded with the NFLPA for years over disability payments, voiced skepticism: “I believe they are just working on another PR spin and nothing will really be any different. The one exception is that they are feeling the pressure.”
Mike Ditka, the former NFL player and coach who for years has raised money to cover former players’ medical care, funerals and burial stones, promised to keep applying pressure.
“The only way to get through to people is to keep knocking on the door,” Ditka said. “But if nobody answers, you’ve got to knock the
Retired players long have grumbled about retirement benefits. But they credit growing activism to Internet chat groups and blogs. When news breaks, as it did with Upshaw’s interview, hundreds of aging athletes head online. “We can talk to each other so much easier,” said Bernie Parrish, a former NFL cornerback who enjoyed a successful career in construction. “There’s a lot of going back and forth between the guys.”
Chat rooms buzz when word surfaces of former athletes who can’t afford medical care or whose widows need financial help. Mike Mosley, whose brief career with the Bills during the early 1980s was cut short by serious injuries, is one of those guys.
The 49-year-old Texan’s $7,000 monthly disability checks unexpectedly stopped in 2004 after the union determined that he was able to do sedentary work. Mosley lost his house and moved into his aging mother’s house. Earlier this year, a friend used the Internet to track down former Packers star Jerry Kramer, who recently founded the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.
Last month, the nonprofit group placed Mosley in a detox program to help end a dependence on pain pills. It now is trying to plug Mosley into health and financial support systems that could help to improve his quality of life. Such stories anger and frustrate Parrish, who, along with Adderley, filed a class-action lawsuit in February that alleges financial irregularities by the NFLPA. The former players also have formed a group to represent retirees’ interests.
“There wouldn’t be any dire need cases if the union had done the right thing,” said Parrish, who led the fight in the late 1960s and early 1970s to create an NFL union. “And there wouldn’t be a problem if the [retiree] benefits were in proportion to the income of the NFL.”
Partly in response to angry online posts by disgruntled former players, the NFLPA on March 30 threatened to disenfranchise local alumni chapters that continued to knock union leadership.
Laird doubts that the NFLPA can silence so many angry men: “We’re going to keep on educating active players about the plight of many former players. We think that once they are educated they’ll give back something to the players who came before them.”
Even before Upshaw’s recent remarks, DeLamielleure had described the animosity between many former players and the union leader as “unbelievable ... This is going to change, one way or another. Either Upshaw loses his job or we get an improved pension.”
DeLamielleure linked his growing frustration to tough times that have dogged such NFL veterans as the late Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, former Bills teammate Donnie Green, who has lived in homeless shelters, and former player and coach Jim Ringo, who suffers from dementia. “I’ll go to my grave fighting for guys who can’t fight anymore,” DeLamielleure said.
Increasingly, that fight is being staged in public.
Kramer’s group held an initial, high-profile fundraiser during the Super Bowl in Miami this year. Additional fundraisers are planned in Hollywood and Las Vegas.
But Kramer acknowledged that some could run out of time: “There are only so many autograph sessions, bobblehead dolls and personal appearances that our guys can make before they’re yesterday’s news.”
Upshaw said last week that he was very aware that the fraternal fight is playing out in the public arena. “We come right into their homes every Sunday,” the longtime union leader and former Oakland Raiders lineman said. “The fans are pulling for you, and that’s what makes the game what it is.”
He also points to $116 million included in the last union-bargained labor agreement that current players agreed to funnel into retired players’ pensions in 2006. The sweetener guaranteed a 25% increase for vested athletes who played before 1982.
“Retired players can’t say that active players don’t care,” Upshaw said. “We have no legal obligation to improve pensions and disability [for retired players], but we have a moral obligation. And I believe that’s what we have done.”
That said, Upshaw, like many other former players, is eager to learn how Goodell would finance the proposed healthcare alliance: “That’s the right question to be answered, and we’re all waiting for the answer.”
Kramer, who lives in Idaho, wants Goodell’s alliance to succeed.
“Hopefully, I can go back to playing golf and fishing,” Kramer said. “There would be nothing better in my world and the world of the people we’re trying to help than to have no further need for our services. That would be a wonderful end to this story.”