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Retired NFL players make small strides in health care

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It was announced in November that the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) has set up an organization to help former players, giving another option for aid to those that have suffered serious injury. It is a $22 million trust fund established from the collective bargaining agreement with the league.

I had to sit back and ask myself, "Is this enough?"

The answer: It is in no way near enough.

In 1982, I was very much involved with the NFLPA union. There was a strike and along with Ted Turner, I helped create a series of all-star games (Players All-Star Season, aka P.A.S.S.) made up of striking players, including many who were Pro Bowlers at the time. Ted had just launched his Cable News Network (CNN) and was looking for programming to fill it. The players union needed money to sustain the strike.

I’ll never forget flying to Chicago to meet Ted for the first time. In the meeting with Ted and me was Bob Wussler, co-founder of CNN. At the time, Ted had no sports programming.

I presented my idea and put a price tag on the TV rights. It took Ted all of 10 minutes to say, "Yes." Not only did he say yes, but also he actually jumped up on a desk, shouting, “I own the NFL!" He punctuated his statement by doing a backflip off the desk, landing on his feet in a perfect 10 landing.

Ted’s TV money allowed the union to sustain the strike. In fact, we had enough money to field an entire new league with 10 teams all owned by the players. Although the players voted our proposal down, the knowledge of this and the money raised from the two all-star games that were players brought NFL commissioner Pete Roselle to the table and the strike was ended.

This was back in 1982. Unfortunately, at that time the active players were only interested in what it meant to them. In spite of men named Cal Weinstein, event coordinator for the NFLPA, and Frank Woshitz, union spokesperson, the veteran player carried on and his various problems went unanswered.

Today, strides have been made. If we were playing Simon Says, it seems like we have taken two small steps forward and one giant step backward.

Why do I say this? Just look at the games of this past weekend. Every game had at least one player suffering a concussion. It has now been proven that current damage will, without question, manifest itself in later years resulting in severe problems.

My dear friend, the late, great Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey, the first president of the players union, was an example of the brain damage that can occur. Fortunately, he had his wife Sylvia fighting for him and she was able to bring about many changes for the good. These advances only benefited John for a short while, but the John Mackey Fund and the 88 Plan for Dementia continues to help others.

Great players, like former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and others, have called attention to their plight today, years after playing the game they love. When asked if he would let his young son play football, sports broadcaster Bob Costas answered, “Absolutely not."

The NFLPA trust fund, known as "The Trust," is geared to assist players in areas such as body and brain evaluations, health and nutrition, physical fitness, career transition, and financial education. All of these services, supposedly, will be provided free of charge.

You may say that these players know the risk of injury that they face when they play the game for which they are paid. This is true! But each team in this day and age is making unbelievable sums of money while most players, except for the very few all-stars, are making nominal dollars. In return, many are maimed for life with no means to care for themselves. Thus, based on the economics involved as well as the circumstances, $22 million is a pittance.

However, I have a solution to propose. Each team, as part of a player’s contract, should supply a long term insurance policy. This policy is not just for injuries while actively playing, but more importantly, for a health policy that kicks in when the former player has a need.

I urge all agents in negotiating their client’s next contract to insert this clause. As the slogan of the 1982 strike said, “The players are the game!”

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