|Elvin Bethea (left), inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003, calls himself 'one of the lucky ones.' (Getty Images)|
If what I'm hearing is true, the NFL is full of snakes and scoundrels. If what I'm hearing is true, NFL players are a despicable bunch, and for the sake of this story I'm not talking about the criminals and killers in the league today. For the sake of this story I'm talking about the leaders, the best of the best, the players who are the face of the NFL. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. I'm talking about men like that.
And I'll say this: What I'm hearing? I believe it is true. I believe it with all my broken heart.
My heart breaks for men like Earl Campbell and Elvin Bethea, crumbling men who gave their health to the NFL and have in return been given a middle finger from the current players.
What I'm hearing isn't from some unnamed source who is afraid to dish this dirt in public. It isn't conjecture or theory. It's a statement of fact -- spoken, and in legal documents -- from an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents the 28 former NFL players who filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against the NFLPA and a handful of individuals, including Brady and union president DeMaurice Smith.
Of those 28 former players who put their names to the lawsuit, 23 are Hall of Famers -- household names like Eller and Lilly, Marchetti and Bednarik. Leroy Kelly. Charley Taylor. Don Maynard. Mel Renfro. Names like that. Legends.
Their attorney, Michael Hausfeld, broke down their lawsuit with some numbers that are so astonishing, so awful, it made my skin crawl.
"Here's some basic math," Hausfeld told me Wednesday, providing one of many heartbreaking facts from the 52-page court filing. "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.
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"[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?"
Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea, one of the 28 plaintiffs against the NFLPA, has a pretty good idea.
"The current players," Bethea said, "kept it for themselves."
Chilling. Heartbreaking. Infuriating. Pick your adjective, and that's it. That's Drew Brees and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and the rest of the NFLPA's leaders, shortsighted men who -- if what I'm hearing is true -- used the latest labor negotiations to cram more money into their bulging pockets rather than give it to the men who made their wealth possible.
A man like Curt Marsh, the Raiders' No. 1 pick in 1981 who played six years and has undergone more than 20 surgeries, many on his right foot. But no more on that foot, because that sucker's gone. Amputated. Football injury. How is Curt Marsh paying for those procedures? Damned if I know, but he's not using NFL insurance because it doesn't exist. Not for retired players.
"The day I retired in 1983, my insurance retired too," Bethea says. "No health coverage. No disability. No nothing."
The NFL and NFLPA have rectified some of that, allowing for disability for former players. Hausfeld and Bethea want to be clear on this: The NFLPA didn't simply abandon them. In the latest CBA, the NFLPA increased the amount of funds directed toward retired players -- but what the NFLPA did was slap a chintzy band-aid on this spurting wound. Picture a rich banker walking past a former colleague, now impoverished, and throwing three nickels at him. As if that's going to help.
"That [$50 million annual] Legacy Fund contribution I mentioned earlier? [Active] players' contribution to that is roughly $15 million a year -- out of revenue to the players of a minimum of $4.5 billion annually," Hausfeld said. "That's less than ½ of 1 percent. That's your context here."
That's monstrous, and disability payments aren't exactly easy for retired players to get. According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday, barely half the retirees who filed for disability in 2010 received anything in return. And of the more than 10,000 former NFL players, the plaintiffs say, "it is estimated that less than 300 have received long-term disability payments."
A guy like Mike Webster, the former Steelers center, was so battered that he ended up tormented, homeless, dead at 50. Colts tight end John Mackey's dementia was such that he would turn on the television in the years before his death in July at 69, watch the Colts game and get angry when he realized that the guy wearing No. 88 wasn't John Mackey. Oilers running back Earl Campbell once ran over linebackers, but now he rides along in a wheelchair, three vertebra removed from his back, his knees ruined, a drooping foot unresponsive. Defensive backs Dave Duerson and Andre Waters committed suicide, neither older than 50, both suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a fancy way of saying their brains had been bashed in during football.
Those are not low-profile stories. Those players were legends, heroes and John Mackey in particular was the first president of the NFLPA. I would say this is galling, but galling doesn't begin to cover it.
"Disgraceful," is how Hausfeld puts it, and I'll defer to the attorney here. Because he's right. Retired players are dying miserable deaths, guilty of bad timing, having played this violent sport in an era when concussions weren't understood, injuries weren't nurtured and salaries weren't enormous.
"They were guinea pigs," Hausfeld said.
I called the NFLPA for their side, and communications director Carl Francis called back to say he had no comment. Wait a minute, I said. What about these numbers from Hausfeld and the lawsuit -- what about the current players basically negotiating retired players out of hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits?
"I can't confirm that," Francis said. "I don't know."
OK, fine. But here's what we do know. We know that a guy like Elvin Bethea, a future Hall of Famer, was paid so poorly in the 1970s that he had to work in the offseason for a big-and-tall clothing store before catching on with Anheuser-Busch as a salesman. He kept that job after he retired from the NFL, giving him the insurance benefits to pay for his 13 operations. He remembers one time a hospital bill for $93,000 came to his house after knee surgery. The insurance company paid for it, but the memory shakes Bethea still.
"What about the players who didn't have a job like I had after they retired [from the NFL]?" he says. "A lot of guys couldn't find that kind of work. A lot of guys couldn't work. I was one of the lucky ones."
That's one way of looking at it. Brees offered another perspective, suggesting that people like Bethea were the smart ones, and the rest -- those who couldn't afford their surgeries -- were irresponsible beggars. This is what Brees said in 2009 about retired NFL players, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday:
"There's some guys out there that have made bad business decisions," Brees said. "They took their pensions early because they never went out and got a job. They've had a couple divorces and they're making payments to this place and that place. And that's why they don't have money. And they're coming to us to basically say, 'Please make up for my bad judgment.'"
That was Drew Brees, nearing the final year of a $60 million contract, judging players from the Elvin Bethea era. As a rookie, Bethea made $15,000.
Today he can't hold a gallon of milk. His wrists hurt too bad. Then again, after all his knee and back surgeries, he can't stand for more than a minute or two. So when would he have time to hold the milk? And Elvin Bethea says he's one of the lucky ones.
"I am," he says. "I really am."
God help the unlucky ones.
The NFLPA won't.