Jun 5, 2019      News      

NFL’s Aging Players Deserve Pension Parity

By: Steve Largent

June 5, 2019
Seattle Times

People who remember the Seahawks’ early days think about quarterback Jim Zorn’s laser throws, Curt Warner’s bruising runs, and, I suppose, my receptions and touchdowns.

Me? I remember Bob Newton. The quintessential, rank-and-file lineman. A man who sacrificed his body to make our highlights possible. And now, pushing 70, one of thousands of retired NFL players whose body is still paying that price — yet receiving a typical pension from the league of only about $2,500 a month.

This is no way to thank the men who laid the groundwork for today’s Seahawks. It must change. And this is the year to do it.

As the NFL celebrates its 100th season this fall — where announcers and video specials will surely laud the old-timers for their heroism and grit — the celebration should include raising those heroes’ pensions. Particularly players who retired before 1993, most of whom receive less in a month than the typical team makes in two seconds of game play.

The owners and the players’ union recently started negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, fighting over who gets how much from the NFL’s $15 billion annual revenue pie. They should save some slices for the guys who helped bake that pie.

I say this not to boost my own pension. I was one of the lucky few with a long and successful career. I retired with a functional body and brain that allowed me to retire comfortably and pursue post-retirement careers, such as serving my home state of Oklahoma for eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

I do say this for the Bob Newtons out there who are struggling with replaced knees and feet too damaged to walk properly. I say this for Greg Gaines, a please-don’t-cut-me linebacker from 1981 to 1988 who left chunks of his knees and shoulders on the Kingdome’s concrete turf. He has had surgeries on almost every part of his body. He is not alone.

There was no free-agency before 1993 — it was the players’ painful strikes of 1982 and 1987 that directly led to the paydays that active players take for granted today. Those paydays will actually last for the rest of their lives, because retirement packages now go well beyond pensions and into 401(k)s and other vehicles that add up to millions.

There is a growing movement for NFL pension reform. I am proud to work with a grassroots group called Fairness for Athletes in Retirement, which will be lobbying the league and union to help the roughly 4,000 retired players who feel forgotten. We’re not asking for the same packages as current players, not by a long shot. Just an easy-to-implement boost in pensions that can give those players the dignity they earned decades ago.

We know it’s easy because the league and union have taken small to medium steps before — to their credit. Then again, these adjustments added only about $20 to $120 per month (per year of service) to players’ pensions, which have barely covered increases in cost of living and players’ skyrocketing medical bills. They receive no health insurance.

The money is there. And there will soon be more — from the windfall of legalized gambling, projected to be in the billions. That’s rain that came out of nowhere. It should fall on everyone, including retired players who are routinely described as “NFL family.”

So, when you watch all of the NFL’s upcoming 100th-anniversary video montages, please do enjoy the Zorns and the Warners and the Largents. But also watch the Bob Newtons and Greg Gaineses. The highlights, and the NFL.itself, wouldn’t exist without them.

Steve Largent is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played wide receiver for the Seahawks from 1976-1989 and later served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.