MINNEAPOLIS – The group of NFL retirees that was a part of the labor talks during the lockout last year has not given up their push for better post-career care.
The money they helped gain for their fellow former players was less than what they believe they were promised, and they're eager to argue their case in court.
"I'm going to fight 'em to the end," said Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, one of 47 ex-players who signed on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in federal court against the NFL Players Association. They've alleged the current players illegally overreached by determining the retiree share of the $10-billion-a-year business without them.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson will hear oral arguments Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn., from both sides. The union has motioned to have the case dismissed. Spokesman Carl Francis said the NFLPA won't comment on the lawsuit. The union's response to the complaint was filed under seal.
Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney for the retired player group led by former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Carl Eller, insisted his clients aren't trying to make a money grab. Eller said they've estimated between $300 and $500 million in additional benefits they were promised in the early stages of CBA talks and didn't get.
Their contention is they were pushed out of negotiations to streamline the mediation process despite a court order for their inclusion. Those talks last summer led to a new collective bargaining agreement for the owners and players and saved the 2011 season.
"The retirees don't begrudge the present players any income they merit, but at the same time they don't feel it was appropriate for the current players to essentially shortchange the retirees," Hausfeld said.
The NFL's new "Legacy Fund" is an additional $620 million carved into the new CBA to go toward pension increases. Current payments to retirees or beneficiaries were bumped up to at least $600 per month. Players over 55 already receiving pensions were given a benefit credit, an extra $124 per season for those accrued prior to 1975 and an additional $108 per season for those played between 1975 and 1992.
Overall, including the "Legacy Fund," an extra $1 billion was set aside in the new CBA to improve benefits, league spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Hausfeld's firm also filed a concussion-related lawsuit on behalf of more than 100 former players last month against the NFL in Philadelphia federal court, alleging negligence and minimization by the league toward head-injury risk in the game. Commissioner Roger Goodell said during Super Bowl week the NFL "will not quit" helping "retired players, the current players and future players by making the game safer."
There is a palpable bitterness that has existed toward modern players from the retirees that has existed for decades.
Lawyers for the retired players referred in the complaint to a 2010 quote from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees that described some of the retirees as coming to the current players and asking them to "please make up for my bad judgment." Brees cited divorces, bad business decisions and an unwillingness to work after football as reasons for financial struggles of some of the former players.
Eller acknowledged that perception his group has tried to overcome among the current players.
"A lot of us did make bad decisions. We had our chance. We had our day at the park. I know that I certainly made bad decisions, but the point is that players today are still making bad decisions. And they're making millions of dollars. So what I'm saying is let's work together to minimize those decisions," Eller said.
DeLamielleure was less diplomatic.
"I wish we could do football stuff instead of all this legal-beagle stuff. If we did this stuff when we were playing football, we'd kick their butt and take 'em to the woodshed," he said.
DeLamielleure, who blocked for O.J. Simpson with the Buffalo Bills during the 1970s as a six-time Pro Bowl pick over 13 NFL seasons, said the pension increases still aren't enough. He and his wife of 40 years both work. They had four children, adopted two more and raised three others.
"We built this league for all these guys to have a good profession," he said.
One problem retired players have had is a lack of unification of their agendas. There are several groups that exist to organize and serve former NFL players, including Eller's Retired Players Association.
The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, for which DeLamielleure is an advisory committee member, is another group. It's a nonprofit designed to provide financial assistance and coordinate social services for those ex-players in the direst of needs — down to shelter, food and health care. Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk is one of the current players who've gotten involved.
Birk said he's "not big into the legal battles" but he said he understands why Eller and his supporters are so fired up about the issues.
"When you feel like the game's kind of turned its back on you, it's tough," Birk said. "I think that's why you see a lot of the dirty laundry being aired. It's an emotionally charged issue."
Birk, a 14-year veteran, said he learned as he got older how critical post-career care can be given the physical toll the sport takes on the body. He said he was startled to hear some of the stories of struggling Hall of Fame players who had trouble paying their basic bills.
"I was like, 'Wow, we're not taking care of these guys?'" Birk said. "You start realizing you're going to be retired someday. I think that's the thing you try to convey to today's players, but it's really difficult to do. When you're playing and you're 23, 24 or 25, you think you're bullet proof, but that's not always the case. As soon as you're retired it doesn't matter how good you are and how many records you set."
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