Finally something is being done.
Back in 1981-82 when I was involved with the NFLPA (The Players Association), there was a wonderful man named Frank Woschitz. Frank headed up all marketing and promotion, but most importantly he was the retired players advocate.
This included his having to interface with the league (NFL). One of the many things he tried to accomplish was to get monetary and medical help for the retirees who gave so much and were now suffering from injuries they had incurred during their playing days.
The NFL owners were flexible and willing to contribute to such a fund. However, his own organization, the NFLPA, had for the most part walked away from the players of yesterday. Without these pioneers, today’s players would not be earning the kind of money they enjoy.
I had a dear friend, football legend John Mackey. In fact, John is often considered the father of the tight end position. When they talk about players, John is typically listed among the top 100 NFL players of all time. John played for 10 years, nine with the Baltimore Colts. His last season was with the San Diego Chargers. His career spanned a decade stretching from 1963 to 1972, but shortened because of injury.
In 1970, John became the first President of the NFLPA. In his first year he organized a strike following a lockout by owners, with the NFL players seeking additional pension contributions and insurance benefits, as well as higher preseason and postseason pay. The strike resulted in increased fringe benefits for NFL players. In 1971, Mackey became the lead plaintiff in a court action, which led to the overturning of the so-called “Rozelle Rule," which limited a player’s ability to act as a free agent. In the 1976 ruling, “Mackey v. the NFL,” the Rozelle rule was determined to violate anti-trust laws.
John had taken this challenge on himself. As a result, because of the league’s anger, it took 20 years until he was voted finally into the Hall of Fame. He paid a large price for being a visionary. As a member of the John Mackey Foundation, I personally saw his dynamic leadership up close on many occasions.
I also watched him physically and mentally deteriorate. The wear and tear on his body from his playing days had exacted a heavy toll and the NFL was not there to help.
Fortunately, John had an exceptional advocate in the person of his wife Sylvia. Sylvia, who was John’s college sweetheart, enjoyed a career as an outstanding and successful model, did she not stand idly by. There was no one there to help Sylvia except a few close friends. Among them was former AFL/NFL QB and vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, who never forgot his friend.
Ironically, John was the recipient of the small pension he had helped negotiate, but it was not enough to cover the cost of his care. He was suffering from symptoms of dementia. Sylvia, a force to be reckoned with, took matters into her own hands leading her to reach out to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. She was persistent and told her story to anyone who would listen.
Commissioner Tagliabue enlisted the aid of NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, who had previously been reluctant to act, and they came up with the “88” plan in February 2007. The plan is named for Mackey’s jersey number and provides $88,000 per year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care for former NFL players, including John, suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Last week, the NFL agreed to pay a $765 million settlement of concussion related lawsuits. However, in this new season and in seasons to come, the problem will continue to exist. After all, last year alone, there were 150 concussions.
Minnesota Vikings QB Matt Cassel said it fairly well:
“We are athletes. We are not gladiators. This is not the Roman Coliseum. There are long lasting ramifications to the game we play. I’ve already come to the understanding I probably won’t live as long because I play this game and that’s OK, that’s the choice I’ve made. That’s a choice all of us have made. But when you cheer somebody getting knocked out, I don’t care who it is and it just so happened to be Matt Cassel – it’s sickening. It’s 100 percent sickening."
Fans crave the hard body contact, but the NFL technologically and by legislation must continue to work to minimize head injuries. Thank you for voices like Sylvia Mackey’s.