Sep 18, 2015      News      

Battle for Benefits, Part 3: “Don’t Make Proud Men Beg”

By: Aaron Gordon

Joe DeLamielleure played in the game’s roughest era and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So why is he receiving a poverty-level pension?

Joe DeLamielleure is 64 years old and still in relatively good health, which is no small thing considering he played for 13 years as an offensive lineman in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the NFL’s most brutal era. He has been married to his loving wife, Gerri, for 43 years in what she described in a recent interview as “marital bliss.” Together, they have raised six children—four biological, two adopted—housed three other children for short periods, plus have 11 grandchildren.

In these respects, DeLamielleure is about as lucky as one can be. As he moves towards his seventh decade, the Pro Football Hall of Famer should be thinking about retirement and spending more time with his family. Only that’s not possible on his NFL pension, which pays DeLamielleure $1,257.96 a month after taxes—or just over $15,000 a year, an amount that’s just below the federal poverty level of $15,930 for a family of two.

To make ends meet and provide the family with health coverage, Gerri still has to work as a nurse. At 63 years old, she gets up at 5:30 a.m., four days a week, and heads to her job at an area hospital.

Meanwhile, Joe mainly works as a greeter at a casino near Buffalo, and makes other guest appearances across the region. He collects an additional $1,123 a month from the Legacy Benefit, a fund collectively bargained in 2011 to boost pensions for NFL retirees who played before 1993, a group called the “pre-93ers.” Yet that’s still not enough to cover basic living expenses, never mind sending his kids to college.

“Forget the players,” DeLamielleure says. “How about their families? How about the wives? How about the kids, who have to take care of these guys?”

When it comes to struggling with inadequate benefits and a poverty-level pension, DeLamielleure isn’t alone among NFL retirees. According to data provided by the league, 3,641 former players receive an average monthly pension payment of $1,656. About 90 percent of those retirees also receive money from the Legacy Benefit fund, with an average monthly payment of $723.85. Add those amounts together, and that’s roughly $28,550 a year, a not insignificant amount that’s still far less generous than Major League Baseball’s pension plan.

After only 43 days in the bigs, MLB players are eligible for $34,000-a-year pensions. Players are awarded $100,000 a year after a decade in the Majors. Pre-93 NFL players would require 11 seasons—the average NFL career only lasts 3.3 years—to earn even the MLB’s 43-day pension level. And to earn $100,000 a year, those same pre-93ers would have had to play in the NFL for more than 30 years.

To put things another way: in 2011, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell received a $4.1 million boost to his pension. DeLamielleure would have to collect his NFL pension for 144 years to earn that much. Even he isn’t that lucky.

Joe DeLamielleure squaring up against the Broncos in 1983. Photo by Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

DeLamielleure calls the players of his generation “guinea pigs.” They were the first NFL players to have full facemasks and hard shell helmets, which allowed them to use their heads as weapons in a way never seen before. They played on the experimental Astroturf, a concrete surface covered in a thin layer of fake grass. Chop blocks, in which one player blocks a guy up high and another dives at his legs to take him down, were permitted. So were wedge formations on kickoffs, a tactic in which a group of players holds hands to form a battering ram against the opposing unit. Linemen were permitted to clobber one another across the head, which resulted in DeLamielleure becoming mostly deaf in one ear. Helmet-to-helmet hits were not only legal, but encouraged.

The NFL wasn’t simply more brutal in DeLamielleure’s day, it was far less lucrative, too. In 1982, the league’s television contracts were worth a reported $2 billion. Game tickets could cost less than $10. Practice squads were referred to as “taxi squads,” because many of the players on them drove cabs as a source of secondary income. Given the NFL’s former financial picture, it isn’t surprising that pensions and benefits for DeLamielleure and his pre-93 peers weren’t particularly generous. Perhaps the intent was to supplement a pension from a second career rather than to provide for full retirement.

Given the league’s subsequent growth, it’s surprising they’ve stayed that way. Taxi squad players now earn a minimum of $6,300 per week, and sometimes upwards of $17,000 a week. No one needs to work for Uber. Last year, the average NFL ticket price was $84.43, and the league’s current television contracts total more than $27 billion. Overall, the NFL has become a $10 billion-a-year industry, one that Goodell hopes to expand to $25 billion a year by 2027.

And yet: retiree benefits haven’t kept pace. At least not for DeLamielleure and company, who were born at the wrong time. In 1993, the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement drastically altered the league’s financial landscape, adding free agency in exchange for a player salary cap. Benefits and pensions were boosted significantly for future retirees, but not for existing ones. A former player who played in the 1998 season was now eligible for $470 a month in pension payments; but a player credited for the 1992 season was still receiving just $225.

DeLamielleure played for 13 vested seasons, meaning he was on the active roster for at least three games in each of those seasons. Yet, between his pension and legacy benefits, he receives less than $200 a month for each year in the league. When current NFL players collect their pensions, they will make $660 a month for the 2015 season, more than 3.5 times what DeLamielleure gets. For the 2018 through 2020 seasons, NFL players will get $760 a month in their pensions, more than four times DeLamielleure’s allotment.

Over time, the NFL and its older retirees have experienced a profound financial decoupling. The league’s revenues and popularity have skyrocketed past other sports; meanwhile, pre-93ers have seen relatively paltry pension bumps, sometimes as little as $60 at a time. When DeLamielleure took his pension at 45, he received a little over $900 a month. Twenty years later, it’s up by about $300. That’s a 35 percent increase—which means that, without the Legacy benefit, DeLamielleure would actually be losing money, given that inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index has gone up 42 percent over the same time frame.

Eight years ago, Congress held a hearing on former NFL player benefits, in which former player and coach Mike Ditka pleaded, “Fix the system. Don’t make proud men beg. Don’t make ’em jump through hoops. They have dignity. Let people live out their lives with some respect.” Benefits have improved since then, but the underlying question that attracted lawmakers’ attention remains: how is it that older league retirees like DeLamielleure—the guinea pigs who built the league into a cash cow cultural colossus, one punishing head slap at a time—largely end up on the outside of a football boom looking in?

DeLamielleure (fourth from the right) with other Hall of Famers during former Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson’s induction in 2008. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“The bottom line is, I don’t work for [retired NFL football players]. They don’t hire me and they can’t fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That’s who pays my salary.”

The preceding quote does not come from Goodell, and was not captured via surreptitious audio recording. It comes from former NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw—union head from 1983 until his death in 2008—and was given to the Charlotte Observer, only to be stated again and confirmed to the New York Times a few weeks later. In fact, Upshaw later clarified this remark to say he was speaking specifically about DeLameilleure, one of his most vocal opponents. If you want to understand why so many NFL retirees struggle to get by or have sob stories to tell, this is a good place to start.

The vast majority of benefits for NFL players, both active and retired, are negotiated through the collective bargaining agreement between the NFLPA and the league. Every time a new deal is struck, improvements tend to go to active players and their future retirement funds, and for good reason.

The union doesn’t represent already-retired players. So why should it fight for them?

During the 2007 Congressional hearings, a lawyer for the NFLPA testified as much. There’s nothing controversial about this from a labor law perspective. However, most industries don’t have an average career span of 3.3 years and nearly 100 percent turnover in the labor force every two decades. That is, most unions don’t have to worry about employees who will be retired for at least twice as long as they were employed.

Prioritizing current players over retired ones turned out to be a big deal because of the 1993 CBA, which introduced free agency in exchange for a player salary cap. This protects league profits, since teams can only spend around 48 percent of revenue on players. But it has another, hidden feature that might be even more lucrative.

The “players’ share” of league revenue, roughly 48 percent of the NFL’s $10 billion pie, includes more than just player salaries and those hefty contracts reported by Adam Schefter every offseason. It also includes player benefits, including their health care, pension and disability benefits, worker’s compensation insurance, 49 percent of the Legacy benefit, and dozens of the post-career benefits the league touts. This creates a fundamental tension between many player benefits and current player salaries: more for one, less for the other.

For example, in 2011, the most recent year in which data was available under the new CBA guidelines, the players’ share of NFL revenue came to $142 million per team. But player benefits costs set the salary cap at only $120 million. To put it another way, player benefits accounted for 15 percent of the players’ share of the total NFL pie.

The salary cap structure allows owners to essentially make the players pay for their own benefits, further dividing players against former players during CBA negotiations. Owners take home more than half the annual loot (52 percent) and control their costs. They don’t have to worry about rising player health care costs, pensions, or worker’s compensation premiums. If the players—current or retired—want more, the NFL can simply say: you have your 48 percent. You figure it out.

Nevertheless, many active players are more than willing to give up some of their share to help retired players. But most players find themselves severely disconnected from the union that represents them and are unable to shape its priorities during key negotiations.

The vast majority of NFL players only have direct contact with union representatives during an annual meeting with NFLPA leadership, typically held just before the start of the season as a general overview of benefits available and priorities for the upcoming year. Each team also elects a player representative to communicate more regularly with the union and to vote on key matters, although even that system may be flawed. “My player rep experience exposed to me how much say the players really have in all of this, which is jack shit,” said Kyle Turley, a former player rep for the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints from 2001 to 2003.

For example, Turley said, consider how players are expected to review the union’s budget at the NFLPA’s annual board meeting, typically held in tropical destinations such as Hawaii, the Bahamas, or secluded Floridian resorts. The night Turley arrived at one such board meeting, he was handed the NFLPA’s budget proposal—a stack of papers several inches thick—for the upcoming year. NFLPA employees told him to look it over; there would be a vote on it the next morning. Turley tried his best to absorb it, but the financial details were far too dense for a layman to comprehend, much less in one night.

Players have the option of attending a session on the second day with NFLPA staff to ask any budgetary questions they may have, which have, in some cases, gone for hours.*

In 2010, player reps voted to allow two retired players to be added to the union’s executive committee, which gave the group a greater voice during collective bargaining negotiations than ever before. But the two former players have no voting power.

“The labor laws don’t really permit us to have a voting membership,” said Jim McFarland, one of the retired player representatives during the 2011 collective bargaining negotiations. “We’re not employees. Collective bargaining takes place between employers and employees. Our participation is limited to being there and making suggestions and recommendations.”

Another problem is that player reps don’t take active roles in negotiations. Instead, McFarland and Turley say, NFLPA officials hold behind-closed-doors talks with their NFL counterparts, and then relay those conversations back to the player reps, who remain separated and disengaged from the most substantive negotiations.

Voting members and retired players are frustrated over what they see as lavish and confusing spending that they don’t actively control.

The NFLPA is required to file annual financial reports with the Department of Labor, which provide a window into their annual expenditures. In 2014, the NFLPA categorized two main expenditures under “board meeting”: the Ritz Carlton Hawaii and Waldorf Astoria Orlando for a total of $1.3 million. The previous year, the NFLPA spent $1.7 million on the board meeting at an “ultra-luxury” resort in the Bahamas.

Salaries at the union consistently float into the six figures. Last year, 49 union employees made six or seven figures, including NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith’s $2.4 million salary.

Still, these salaries pale in comparison to the union’s annual expenditures on outside lawyers and accountants, even though they spend millions in annual salaries for full-time, in-house counsel and accountants. In 2014, the union spent a combined $6.5 million on lawyers and accounting firms under the category of “CBA matters,” despite the fact that the last CBA was ratified in 2011 and extends through 2020. In 2013, that number was just shy of $7.5 million, for a combined total of $14 million over two non-CBA negotiating years spent on “CBA Matters.” Over the last three years, the union has paid DeMaurice Smith’s former employers, the law firms Latham & Watkins and Patton Boggs (now called Squire Patton Boggs after a 2014 merger), approximately $2.5 million in combined services rendered. The NFLPA did not comment on the specific nature of these expenditures.

Retired players seethe over the NFLPA’s perceived exuberant spending when they receive annual letters from the union informing them that the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Plan, which funds both pensions and disability benefits, is in “endangered” status, meaning that it’s less than 80 percent funded. The notices started in 2010, when the Plan was only 77.4 percent funded. This May, union members received their now-annual notice, which said the Plan is funded at 54.5 percent, putting it in “critical” status, or the most severe government warning, at a shortfall of over $1.3 billion.

The only ways to improve the funding percentage—other than praying for higher yields on their investments—is to put more money in or make sure less money is taken out.

That is, the NFLPA and owners can either contribute more money to the pot, make sure less money is taken out in the form of benefits paid, or both. Unfortunately, this makes the prospect of aiding pre-93ers that much less likely.

Pre-93ers felt abandoned by their union when they first decided to take their pensions, which has resulted in lasting bitterness and resentment. “Nobody guided us through this,” DeLamielleure recalls. “They just said, oh, you want your pension? Check the box you want.” At the time, DeLamielleure says, Upshaw promised their pensions would grow in accordance to league revenue growth. But, as league revenues continue to skyrocket, pensions only lag further.

Almost to a man, the pre-93ers—and some post-93ers—recite a maxim that they believe best summarizes the NFL and NFLPA’s attitude regarding retired players: “delay, deny, and hope they die,” the saying goes. (The only other group that seems to use the motto are U.S. military veterans referring to their treatment in the Veteran’s Affairs system.)

Whether or not “delay, deny, and hope they die” has been a concerted strategy, it is a statistical probability that most of the pre-93ers will die within the next decade. Although the average life expectancy of an American male is 76 years of age, an analysis conducted by VICE Sports regarding the average lifespan of NFL players shows that former NFL players have a much lower life expectancy of 62 years. The majority of pre-93ers still alive are between the ages of 50 and 65.

In his letter announcing the Legacy benefit, Goodell wrote, “These players did something for the game of football. Now it’s our turn to do something for them. It’s easy to say we appreciate them. But our actions need to tell the same story.” Every former player I spoke with does not believe the NFL or the NFLPA’s actions tell that story.

Last March, wives of 25 Hall of Fame players sent Goodell and Smith a letter asking to have a meeting to discuss “pension parity,” or to have the pre-93er pensions match those the current players will receive when they turn 55. The wives did not receive a response to their letter until July, more than four months later.

Sylvia Mackey, one of the co-signers of the letter and wife of John Mackey, who died in 2011 after a long battle with dementia, told me that Goodell’s reply didn’t sufficiently address any of their concerns, or explain why their pensions remain hovering at poverty levels. “If they have given a reason,” she told me, “I didn’t understand it.”

“There’s a little dignity which comes with taking care of yourself,” DeLamielleure told me, echoing Ditka’s impassioned plea during the 2007 Congressional hearing, and emphasizing that the reforms since then have not been enough. “I really feel like these guys, pre-93, have earned it just as much as the post-93 who’s getting it. They laid the foundation for the league. They struck for free agency, they struck for all those things which these guys have benefitted from and they got nothing from it. So now, at this point in time, there’s nothing else.”

(Editor’s note: In this three-part series, VICE Sports examines the difficulties former NFL players face in obtaining medical care and adequate benefits after retirement. Click here for the entire Battle for Benefits series.)

*A previous version of the article incorrectly attributed a quote to a source that was supposed to be on background.

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