According to the National Football League’s Players Association, this number represents the average life-span of an NFL career. But as numerous studies show, this ephemeral period of time can lead to lifetime disability and deterioration.
For months, veterans of the League and the NFL Player’s Association have been engaged in a highly publicized and venomous confrontation over health benefits for former players. Separate articles in the pages of ESPN and The New York Times have painstakingly detailed the physical, psychological and emotional deterioration a number of NFL players have endured since retiring from the NFL. For example, Ted Johnson, a former linebacker for the New England Patriots,10-year NFL veteran and victim of multiple concussions was one of those profiled in the pages of The New York Times. In the course of the article, Johnson admitted that the “depression and cognitive problems he had developed since 2002 had worsened to the point that he took Adderall, a prescription amphetamine, at two to three times the dosage authorized by his doctors, who had been unaware of the abuse.” And the overall prognosis left nothing to be desired. According to Johnson’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Cantu, the chief of neurosurgery and director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass.,: “Ted already shows the mild cognitive impairment that is characteristic of early Alzheimer’s disease. The majority of those symptoms relentlessly progress over time. It could be that at the time he’s in his 50s, he could have severe Alzheimer’s symptoms.”
Johnson’s admission came on the heels of the suicide of Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles player who committed suicide last November and was later determined to have had significant brain damage caused by football-related concussions.
ESPN chronicled the downfall of Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler center, Mike Webster, who died homeless in 2002 after suffering from mental illness widely attributed to head injuries sustained as a player.
And yet no significant steps have been taken. In fact, reaction from those who are employed to defend and support today’s players have been incomprehensibly callous and myopic. Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Player’s Association and a former Oakland Raider offensive lineman, dismissed former players such as Mike Ditka and Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers as “a bunch of crybabies.” Additionally, the NFL Player’s Association published a Web site page titled “The NFLPA Truth Squad: Facts vs. Fiction”, created to “correct serious misstatements of fact” by former players.
I have never understood Upshaw’s laziness in facing this problem. Not just a suit, Upshaw was an NFL veteran of 16 years. Where is his empathy for those he stood with, side-by-side, in facing foes on the gridiron? Where is his sympathy for his worthy opponents?
Thankfully, life is full of irony. Of all the players in the NFL, Kansas City Chiefs lineman Kyle Turley is least likely to win an award for competency or sportsmanship. Best known for ripping the helmet off a player who grabbed his teammate's facemask and tossing it downfield while with New Orleans, Turley has decided to donate his entire December 23 paycheck to help needy NFL veterans. The $25,000 contribution is thoughtful, selfless and certainly needed.
Yet, the astronomical medical costs various former players face will not disappear with the cashing of one current player’s weekly pay-check. Help is needed.
According to some news reports, 325 former AFL and NFL players receive minimal retirement benefits. In 2006, when they attempted to have the league and the Association consider their plight, Upshaw responded: “I don't work for them. They are not union members and they have no vote.”
Current players ARE union members. In order to protect themselves and their predecessors from financial and physical degradation, they must make this an issue. Nothing would galvanize this cause more than terminating the contract of the man who has failed to represent them and their heroes: Gene Upshaw.
27 November 2007