CANTON, Ohio -- Many former NFL players, the ones who laid the foundation for today’s $7 billion-a-year NFL, played for everyman’s wages and needed a second job in the offseason.
They will limp and hobble to the stage. One by one, more than 80 Pro Football Hall of Famers will be introduced at Saturday night’s enshrinement ceremony.Many of them, the ones who laid the foundation for today’s $7 billion-a-year NFL, played for everyman’s wages and needed a second job in the offseason. They have scars on their knees and hips. Their memories have faded. Mike Ditka, one of the Hall of Fame’s most recognizable members, refuses to be a part of it. Until the NFL Players Association improves its pension and disability payments to Ditka’s liking, he won’t be back in Canton. Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Famer who leads the players union, will be here. He has the same scars, the same limp and played the same brutal game for 15 years. He’s spent the past two decades trying to improve retirement benefits for players from all eras. In the past year, Upshaw has drawn criticism from former players, including Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure, another Hall of Famer. Four times since 1993, Upshaw has improved benefits for former players — a feat he is proud of. “It’s very unusual for labor unions to go back and do anything for people who are no longer in the bargaining unit,” Upshaw said during an interview Thursday. Some Progress Among the biggest complaints from former players is the time it takes for claim decisions. “There is no doubt in my mind, and what we’ve been pushing for, is (changes),” Upshaw said. “I’m not saying by streamlining the process ... it will qualify any more people, but we do get answers a lot sooner, and that should end some of the frustration for the players.” Upshaw said the average is 12 to 18 months for a decision. Last year, 284 former players were granted disability payments that cost $20 million. Ditka is astounded more were not granted given the violent nature of the game. Last week, the NFL and NFLPA announced an array of improvements for former players. Hall of Famers Willie Lanier, Billy Shaw, Frank Gifford, Merlin Olsen and Steve Largent supported the announcement in person. Ditka said he was not asked to attend. “They invited certain past players who have no bearing on the subject at all,” Ditka said. “They’re playing to the media, and I don’t buy it.” Upshaw understands that criticism is part of his job as the union’s leader. “This organization and our purpose will not be defined by people that might disagree or are angry with the course we’ve taken,” Upshaw said. “We’ve taken this course because it’s the only course we can take. We’re proud of what we’ve done, we’re proud of the record we have and we’ll continue to build on that. “(Ditka) is entitled to say what he wants to say about what we’re trying to achieve. We’ll continue to forge ahead. There’s work to be done, and we’re not afraid of that work or the criticism that comes with it. Call it what you want. The end result is what matters.” Plenty of former players make poor financial decisions. Ditka said not every former player who is having financial problems is defensible. “The only thing left to blame me for is the Iraq war,” Upshaw said. “I think I get blamed because I’m here. I’m the executive director. I negotiate the collective bargaining agreement. I have a phone. It rings, so I answer. I’m here.” Not Satisfied And Ditka may never be in Canton again. “First of all, it’s a great honor to be a part of the Hall of Fame,” Ditka said. “I’m truly excited for Michael Irvin and the rest of the guys going in. But I can’t get excited about the dog and pony show that’s going on. I just can’t listen to — whatever it is you want to call it, but it’s not the truth.” Ditka isn’t alone. DeLamielleure sums up NFL pensions in two words: “They suck.” He gets about $1,200 a month for a pension. Like many former players, he started taking it when he was 45 years old. The NFLPA’s normal retirement age is 55. Players are told their benefits will shrink if they choose to receive it early. Upshaw said the average age players opt to take the pension is 47. The NFLPA pays about 3,000 pensions every month, amounting to $5.4 million. The average payment is about $1,800. The NFLPA paid $96.5 million in retirement benefits from April 2006 to March 2007. Active players contributed about $82,000 each. “We end up as a custodian. ... If you leave a job at age 30 or 35, you still have to wait another 30 years to get your pension in most cases,” Upshaw said. “What we allowed players to do in early years is to take 25 percent of their pension at 45, and they made the mistake of taking the social security adjustment at 62. All those things make our tasks harder today.” Reach Repository sports writer Todd Porter at (330) 580-8340 or firstname.lastname@example.org. PENSION PLAN Here is information on the NFL pension plan and other benefits available to former players. Some of the changes were announced last week by the NFL and NFL Players Association, the union that represents players. Cost of Benefits All NFLPA benefits are paid for by active players. From April 2006 to March 2007: - $96.5 million went for retirement benefits - $31 million went for health benefits - $20 million went for disability benefits - In all, a total $147.5 million was provided, financed through $82,000 paid by each of the NFL’s 1,800 active players. Widow and Children Benefit Benefits are tripled for the survivors of a player who dies before his retirement benefits begin. 88 Plan Beginning in 2007, players under the pension plan became eligible for medical and custodial expenses that are a result of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Up to $88,000 per year is paid for institutional care or up to $50,000 per year for in-home nursing care. There also is an agreement to fund research on dementia. Pension Improvements Each collective bargaining agreement since 1993 has increased pensions to retired players. Players who played before 1959 were provided their first pension in the 1993 CBA, with increases of more than 300 percent since. Federal law does not require employers or unions to provide retirement, medical or disability benefits to retired players. Disability Benefits NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw said there are three decisions that must be made for total and permanent disability claims. - Is the player totally and permanently disabled or can he work? - When did the player become totally and permanently disabled? - What caused the total and permanent disability? From 1993 to this year, the NFLPA has received 1,052 disability claims. Of those, 428 have been approved, 576 denied and 48 cases are pending. Also, if medical evidence shows a former player to be totally and permanently disabled within 15 years of his career ending, a benefit of $110,000 a year is paid.