Published July 15, 2011
MINNEAPOLIS – Carl Eller doesn't want to be one of the bad guys, not when the NFL seems so close to getting back to work.
The Hall of Fame defensive end, one of Minnesota's fearsome Purple People Eaters, is nonetheless unhappy about how he and his fellow retirees have been treated as NFL owners and current players negotiate a new deal to split more than $9 billion in revenue.
That deal, of course, will include retirement benefits for the former players of this dangerous sport.
Eller and other retirees have sued both the NFL and the NFL Players Association, complaining that they've illegally been left out of the latest talks after taking part in court-ordered mediation sessions earlier this year. They say both sides have also conspired to keep benefit levels and pension payments low in the new collective bargaining agreement.
As loudly as they've raised their concerns, they're not interested in derailing a deal.
"We're not looking for a fight. We're just looking to make things right. If football stops on our account, we don't want to be left holding the bag. We just want what we've earned," Eller said. "Here's the point where we are: We don't want to do anything to hurt the game. We love the game. We support the game. In fact, we know what we want to do is support the Hall of Fame game, because that's ours."
The Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams are scheduled to play that first preseason contest, on Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio. For ex-players like Eller, the hope is that a new labor deal will be in place to allow that game to be played — and to allow them to celebrate their contributions and relish long-sought gains in retiree benefits.
"We will use every tool in our tool bag to get our rights," Eller said. "We are following the law, so don't prosecute us or blame us for following the law. These are serious things that we're after. It could be life or death for some players, so it's essential that we get this. We're not doing this just for more money. We're doing this just because lives depend on it."
Nolan Harrison, the NFLPA's senior director of retired players, declined to comment specifically on the retirees' accusations because of the pending litigation. But he said retiree benefits are being taken seriously: "We know that the guys are working hard to get a deal done. There are current and former players in the room."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said improvements for retired players "have been an important part of the negotiations," pointing to the presence of retired players on both sides of the table, including Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and Green Bay Packers president and chief executive officer Mark Murphy.
John Hancock, a labor law expert with the Detroit firm Butzel Long who is closely following the NFL, said the retirees may have more moral ground to stand on than legal.
"Normally in a situation like this, you negotiate benefits on behalf of future retirees," Hancock said. "Those who are already retired are technically no longer part of the bargaining unit because they're already getting what they bargained for."
Eller and other retired players have argued for years that those benefits are inadequate.
Many of the pioneers of the NFL have paid a lifelong physical price for playing a high-impact sport, and their push for better care has gained steam and public support in recent years.
With his name also on the still-pending antitrust lawsuit filed against the league, Eller was often present at early negotiating sessions. But the retirees' role has been drastically reduced, with owners and the current players meeting on their own at various places around the country.
"They gave us a seat, but no chair," Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure said. "Carl Eller was told that he has a seat. These guys are negotiating again without us."
Frustrated by the exclusion, Eller and his attorneys filed a second lawsuit, adding more plaintiffs — including Marcus Allen and Franco Harris — and accusing the two sides of violating the mediation court order and breaking promises of better benefits. A hearing is set for Aug. 8, which could come after a new collective bargaining agreement is forged.
"If they're saying 'we want more,' there's not much legal merit to it because they're not a part of the collective bargaining unit," Hancock said. "But if you make this a moral issue, then can say, 'You're sitting there dividing up $9 billion in revenue from a league that was built on our shoulders and we're destitute.'"
Attorneys Michael Hausfeld and Shawn Stuckey declined to comment on a possible next step for the retirees.
"We've had both the players and the league to admit that there were many shortcomings in the system the way it is. We want to be at the table to negotiate how we improve those on our own," Eller said.
Though the league is named in the lawsuit as well, Eller said most of the frustration has been directed toward the current players.
"The players have no authority to negotiate for us and the league should not be negotiating our benefits with the players association," Eller said. "That is in direct violation to what's been established at this point. They're having it both ways. That's very contradictory. It looks like to me that they're pretty much just playing games with the law, with total disregard with what's been mandated. It just kind of gives you an idea of their arrogance and what they think of the retired players."
One of the problems retired players have endured in their push over the years is disorganization — a number of groups exist. One of the most prominent is the NFL Alumni Association, led by former New York Giants defensive standout George Martin.
Martin's group, like Eller's, has publicly called on Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith to keep the interests of the retirees in mind, particularly for those who played prior to the creation of the previous CBA in 1993.
"I understand the position that they've taken. Obviously, there's a lot of animosity, impatience and frustration," Martin said last week. But he said the NFLAA is not interested in legal action.
"We would prefer to take a more diplomatic approach to this whole settlement," he said.
Martin said he's hopeful of an increase in retiree benefits by as much as 60 percent from the previous level. He also said nearly 1,000 retirees have signed up for a new long-term health care program in what he sees as progress for their cause.
Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka, the former Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints head coach, decided not to be added as a plaintiff in Eller's lawsuit because he doesn't "believe in that" and isn't "mad at anybody" on either side.
However, Ditka echoed Eller's concerns about a perceived lack of respect.
"The present players really don't care about the former players. Not at all. Whether the owners do or not, I don't know," he said. "They would have to show it, and right now, nobody's shown a whole heck of a lot."
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.