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NFL Retirees & the CBA

2011 September 16
by Skip Sauer

We’ve posted on this before, long ago:  too many former NFL players spend their retirement years with varying degrees of physical discomfort, disability, and crippling injuries.  It amazes me that so little has been done on the issue during the past five years.  Meanwhile, the evidence on the severity of injuries incurred by playing football has accumulated, especially for retirees.  One might have hoped that the recent collective bargaining negotiations would have addressed the issue, and judging by the information in Gregg Doyel’s piece at CBSSports.com, indeed it was.  Over the next decade, $700 million has been allocated to the former players, who often played for peanuts, retired with injuries that get worse with age, and have little in the way of pensions or insurance to pay their medical bills.  Absent the context of Doyel’s article, one might view this as a significant step in the right direction.  But the article also points out that the final allocation was $1.3 billion less than was on the table a few months ago.  Doyel quotes attorney Michael Hausfeld, who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the former players:

“The league said [during labor negotiations earlier this year], ‘Reduce rookie salaries by $300 million a year. Split that between active players and retired players. That means $150 million for retired players every year for 10 years. That’s $1.5 billion over 10 years. In addition, there was a pledge for roughly $50 million toward the annual Legacy Fund. So that’s a total of $200 million a year — times 10 years, that’s $2 billion.

“[But] after the players were finished negotiating with the league [in July], retirees only got $700 million over 10 years. Where did the other $1.3 billion go?”

Doyel’s answer is:  current players.  As is his style, he picks a villain of the piece, in this case marquee QBs Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning, who will bank tens of millions of dollars in earnings in the next several years.  But the correct answer is a bit more complex.  What we see in the final agreement is the result of two-sided bargaining, primarily between current players and owners.  Both rookies and retirees “got the shaft” in a very real sense, but the owners’ initial bargaining position may have set up the current players as the fall guys.

Two important aspects of the problem should be kept in mind when reviewing this issue.  First, most player contracts are not guaranteed in the NFL, but TV revenues for the owners is money in the bank.  Second, it is the owners who precipitated the lockout by demanding a greater share of NFL revenues than in the prior CBA.  In effect. the owners appear to have set up current players as the primary funding source for retirees, while they keep a greater share of current profits.  I agree with Doyel that given the wealth of the NFL, its treatment of retirees is shameful.  But I’m quite skeptical that he’s identified the right villain.

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