There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the retirement benefits of older professional athletes, particularly those who played pre-1980. Greg Johnson of the Los Angeles Times does an excellent job documenting the issue facing MLB and the NFL and NBA.
Larry Dierker, a former MLB pitcher, earned $125,000 in his best year. Two years from now, when Dierker turns 60, he will begin collecting $180,000 in annual retirement benefits. Dierker credits longtime MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller for educating players about the importance of retirement planning. Thanks to Miller and the players who stood strong during some long, drawn-out battles with management, the MLB pension is the "gold standard for union-represented athletes."
Older retired athletes in the NFL and NBA are not so fortunate. For example, Conrad Dobler, age 56, is eligible to receive $24,000 annually now, or he can receive $48,000 if he waits until age 62.
As Johnson's article in the LA Times points out, "Federal law requires union leaders to represent the interests of current and future players rather than aging athletes, so improvements to previously negotiated benefits must be approved by current union members — and often by the franchise owners who foot the bills."
Two of the most outspoken ex-NFLers have been Mike Ditka and Jerry Kramer. They have teamed with several NFL legends to launch the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund to "assist retired players in dire need due to the lack of adequate disability and pension benefits." Read and watch their presentation.
Since current players play an important role in directing retirement benefits of all players, there is an obvious dilemma. The question is, How much responsibility do current players have to past players? Further complicating the issue is the fact that the financial futures of current players are far from secure. The current system unfortunately pits current players against the legends of the game, which is unfair to both sides. As Babe Ruth once said, "Baseball is more than a fraternity. It is a family. And the fellow ballplayers are your brothers. In for a penny, in for a pound. All for and one for all." If there's a problem with retired players' benefits, it should be addressed by the Leagues and the unions.
The NBA recognizes the enormous contribution of the pioneers of professional basketball (See related post below). New NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appears to be open minded on that front. During his first "state of the NFL" delivered at the Super Bowl, he said the League needs to "reevaluate to see what we can do more to address the issues and we'll do that."
Many former pro athletes did not partake in the financial windfall of playing professional sports. A few are hard pressed to cover life’s necessities. Pride often prevents them from holding their hand out. Fortunately, many former NFL stars, such as Ditka, Kramer, and Nick Buoniconti are speaking out on behalf of guys who really need financial assistance and support.
Current players should continue to fight for greater retirement and health benefits for former athletes, not just for recent retirees. All professional athletes should keep in mind that they will be active, voting members of the Players Association for just a few years. But they will be retired players for decades. Reaching back to improve pension benefits of retired players, particularly those who literally sacrificed their bodies to help build professional sports into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, is simply good business. These guys sacrificed their bodies -- and in some instances, sadly, their minds -- to make the league what it is today. They stood together though often very troubled labor negotiations, even striking on several occasions in order to improve wages and benefits not just for them, but for every player who followed. Fighting for former players sets an important precedent for future generations of professional athletes: Players take care of their own.
Mike Ditka speaks on retired NFL players in dire need of assistance
NFLPA's Retired Players FAQs
Gene Upshaw responds to retired players (Word document)
NBA Retired Players
NBA reaches out to its pioneers [Greg Johnson/LA Times]
The NFL's forgotten players [Ken Murray/Baltimore Sun]
Glory has its price: 25 years later, the heroes of the 49ers' first Super Bowl championship team weigh the costs of playing a brutal game [Ron Kroichick/'SF Chronicle]
NFL's cold-hearted stance regarding its vets is deplorable [Bryan Burwell/St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
Not much nobler than Lefty's good deed for Dobler [Art Spander/Oakland Tribune ]