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SPORTS: NFL retirees want to help banged up brethren

February 4, 2008

Before Bob Sanders, the last strong safety wearing a Colts uniform to achieve Pro Bowl status was Bruce Laird.

Laird played from 1972 through 1981 for the Baltimore Colts, then closed out his career in 1983 with the San Diego Chargers.

Like Sanders, Laird

was known for "laying the wood" to opposing players. Translation: He was a hard hitter.

These days, he still feels those tackles.

"I felt great until I was 47, then, all of a sudden, nothing worked," said Laird, now 57."My neck was a mess, my shoulders were shot, and I developed arthritis."

Yet, he admitted, he is luckier than many of his peers. He is able to work and make a good living as a representative for a medical provider group in Baltimore.

Others are not so fortunate. One study has found that 65 percent of retired NFL players suffer the long-term effects of permanent injuries from their playing days. Many are disabled. Some, including Laird's former Colts teammate, tight end John Mackey, have suffered from dementia, the result of repeated concussions.

"It's a violent sport," Laird said. "Your body can't take it. At some point, it's going to break down."

That inevitability is a fact of life for thousands of former NFL players yet, in a league that yields an estimated $7 billion in annual revenue, the men who laid the foundation for all that the NFL has become have had to scratch and claw for adequate pension and disability benefits.

Even worse, they have no representation when the NFL Players Association sits down at the bargaining table.

That's something few of us give a second thought to during the orgy of excess that is Super Bowl weekend.

For Laird, however, it's become a crusade. Largely because of the way Mackey was treated-or mistreated-he formed Fourth & Goal, an advocacy group for former players. Laird is bending ears, most notably those of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and making noise, attempting to bring greater awareness of retired players' plight.

"The retired players and active players don't stick together so well," Laird admitted. "They've never won a strike, never had a strong union and, because of that, we've never galvanized. We finally said, 'Nothing will change unless we gather each other together to help those who need help.' So we're going to go to the owners, the advertisers, the media and the fans and let them know what the deal is."

The deal is this: Retired NFL players receive, on average, $14,500 in annual pensions, by far the lowest among the major professional sports leagues. Filing for disability claims is a bureaucratic morass of appeals and denials. And players' union head Gene Upshaw has stated publicly that the concerns of the retired players are of no concern to him; he represents only those who are playing the game today.

"The union is totally aware of everything Fourth & Goal has ever written or talked about," Laird said. "Yet they've chosen to put their heads in the sand. They'll just delay, deny and wait for all of us to die so we'll go away."

Laird makes it clear his Fourth & Goal is not going away. Neither is Gridiron Greats, led by Mike Ditka. Or (former Cleveland Brown) Bernie Parrish's Retired Players for Justice. Or yet another advocacy group called Dignity After Football.

The old soldiers are angry as hell, and aren't going to take it anymore.

And they're starting to get results. Goodell is listening. The "NFL Alliance"-consisting of the league, the players association, the Hall of Fame and the NFL Alumni Association-committed $7 million in assistance. The owners have pitched in another $10 million.

Yet, Laird said, it's like "putting a Band-Aid on the Titanic." He said medical costs, disability claims and adequate pensions actually amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

So what's the goal of Fourth & Goal?

"In five years," Laird said, "I would like to tell you we have a labor relations guy in place representing all the retired players, who lobbies and negotiates with the active player reps to help them in their transition to their new world and help them through life ... together, not separate, paying it forward for every generation that plays this great game to limit the carnage that has happened to retired players."

We love our pro football, no more so than on Super Bowl weekend. But we forget the human toll, especially for those pioneers of the game. Now that the NFL occupies the penthouse, it needs to provide for those who were in on the ground floor.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star.His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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