By Alex Brill, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
With negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA’s for the next collective bargaining agreement (CBA) soon to be underway, there is an opportunity to create fairness for a generation of former NFL athletes now in retirement. At present, approximately 4,000 NFL players who retired before 1993 receive pensions far lower than current NFL players and professional athletes in other leagues. Some of these retirees are trying to make ends meet as they grapple with high medical expenses and neurological disrepair from injuries they sustained on the field. While today’s players often receive multi-million-dollar contracts, a 401(k), an annuity, a health reimbursement account, an option to continue on the league’s health insurance plan, and a host of other benefits, players who retired before 1993 were eligible only for a single retirement benefit: their defined benefit pension. And this pension is just a fraction of what contemporary players receive. For example, pensions for those playing in 2018 season are slated to be three times what players received in 1992 season.
Pre-1993 NFL players’ pensions also fall short compared with athletes of other leagues playing in the same era. A ten-year MLB veteran who retired after 1980 can expect to receive a pension more than four times that of a comparable pre-1993 NFL player. NBA retirees enjoy similarly generous benefits, and, in 2016, the NBA and NBA Players Association used their CBA to fund a health insurance plan, career development program, and pension increases for all retired players.
Pre-1993 NFL players, many of whom I admired as a kid, deserve better, and both the NFL and the NFLPA have the means to deliver. These players deserve a seat at the CBA negotiating table and a commitment from the NFL and the NFLPA to make their pensions commensurate with the athletes that came after them. Playing in the NFL in an era with lower salaries and less emphasis on player health left many pre-1993 athletes physically and financially challenged. It is time the NFL and NFLPA acknowledge that and ensure their retirees can live out their remaining years with dignity.