Latchkey NFL? Vets Appeal to Congress

In a historic room where a nation's elected representatives pondered the impeachment of two presidents, a House subcommittee pondered a different kind of history in a hearing on Tuesday afternoon -- the history of the National Football League's treatment of old players fighting injury and insolvency.

The charges and countercharges were no less intense than the charges and countercharges that flew around the room as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton faced impeachment. They included talk of "fraud" and "crime" and "corruption," as a small group of retired players ripped into Gene Upshaw, the leader of the NFL Players Association, and the league.

Brent Boyd, who says he suffered concussions and brain damage while playing guard for the Vikings for seven seasons in the 1980s, compared the NFL to the tobacco industry.

"They lie about the NFL and concussions the same way the tobacco companies lied about tobacco and cancer," Boyd said.

Curt Marsh, a first-round draft pick in 1981 who played guard for the Raiders for seven years, described his difficulties in persuading the NFL that he was disabled despite 31 surgeries, 14 of them on his leg, including its amputation. Both of Marsh's hips have been replaced, and he's had seven operations on his back.

"I had no leg," he said. "I had no hips. I had no back. And they thought I was fine."

Representatives of the union and the league, meanwhile, offered lengthy summaries of what the NFL currently does for retired players, trying to convince Subcommittee Chairwoman Linda T. Sanchez that the NFL has been generous and compassionate. A Players Association lawyer, Douglas W. Ell, said the NFL's disability benefits is "the most generous in sports and maybe on the planet."

Just like the presidential impeachment hearings conducted in Room 2141 of the Rayburn Office Building, neither side gave an inch. The players presented compelling and tragic stories, and the NFL and its union furnished powerful numbers and data to back up their assertions that they treat retired players well.

So at the end of the day, what was accomplished? The five House committee members who attended the hearing asked some questions, but they led to nothing that will change any laws or solve any problems. The hearing didn't even determine with any certainty that there is a problem.

However, some of the issues in the controversy are clear, despite Tuesday's adversarial exchanges and the political posturing. Here are six:

The NFL and the Players Association have been increasing benefits for disabled players year after year and collective bargaining agreement after collective bargaining agreement. There was an enormous jump in benefits in the union contract of 1993, after Upshaw led the players through a series of triumphant antitrust lawsuits that resulted in free agency and many other benefits. As former player Tom Keating observed, "What other business increases pensions payments after the employee is on a pension. I am grateful to Gene Upshaw for the increases he has produced."

There is a small group of players who have suffered indignities and mild abuse in the disability system. But it is a small group. For every player with a sad story, there are dozens who are making more in their pensions and disability benefits than they ever did as players.

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