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.

It is difficult to understand the rage of some of the older players. Under Upshaw's leadership, the union has produced enormous steps forward for players in salary, medical care, and pensions. Sitting in the audience with other disgruntled players at the hearing was Mike Pyle, the president of the players union in the 60s. He and his leadership team accomplished very little for players, but they now criticize Upshaw and his stewardship of the union.

Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka, the celebrity attraction at the hearing (he was mobbed in the hall by autograph seekers), seems to suffer from something akin to attention deficit disorder. He is operating his own fund for older players and he rages away at Upshaw and the union, but he isn't able to provide any specific information. He once claimed that some 300 players have been wrongfully denied disability benefits. When asked about it at Tuesday's hearing, though, he admitted, "I'm not sure that is correct." But it didn't stop him from preaching to the committee about "what's right and what's wrong" and about a "system that is obviously broken."

The league and the union could do a better job of explaining what they do for disabled players. Neither Commissioner Roger Goodell nor Upshaw chose to appear at the hearing. The league sent its masterful PR wizard, Joe Browne, and one of its top lawyers, Dennis Curran. The union sent attorney Ell and its disability expert, Michele Yaras-Davis, and produced an impressive package of data on its disability program. But personal appearances by Goodell and Upshaw might have changed both the atmosphere and the substance at the hearing.

Players frequently make bad decisions as they leave the NFL. Despite extensive efforts by union officials to inform players of the legal avenues they must follow to protect themselves, players frequently find themselves taking their pensions too early, losing benefits in divorce litigation, failing to file workers compensation cases that could protect them against future medical bills and disabilities.

The impeachment hearings in Room 2141 didn't stop people from continuing to argue about Nixon and Clinton and the things they did or did not do or cover up. The NFL hearing in the same room likely won't stop old players, the media, and fans from continuing to argue about what the NFL does, doesn't do or covers up about its disabilities and pensions.

You hoped the historic room might have worked some magic and cleared things up for the NFL and its fans. It didn't. Instead, the hearing only seemed to harden positions and add to the arguments.'s Lester Munson is a Chicago lawyer and journalist who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years.