One has to believe that when John Mackey passed to the Other Side last week, former Eagles safety Andre Waters was waiting there for him.
So were Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and the other former NFL players who died too soon because of dementia or other brain maladies brought on by repeated blows to the head. Let’s hope their souls are at ease, and their minds are sharp and clear as they relive their time playing the sport they loved.
It’s fun to imagine that bucolic setting, but that’s all we can do, since there is no hard evidence of what exactly the afterlife provides. But there is some serious business going on in our real world, and it might just provide some peace for the next John Mackey or Andre Waters.
As negotiations in the NFL labor dispute head toward their conclusion (we hope), there is one item Players Association head DeMaurice Smith and league commissioner Roger Goodell must include in the final deal: universal health coverage for all retired players. I’m talking about the Maserati of benefits for life. Small co-pays. Excellent doctors and top hospitals. Top-shelf care. Everybody who lasts in the league three seasons is eligible.
For those of you who don’t know Mackey’s story, he was a Hall of Fame tight end with the Colts and Chargers and former past Players Union president who suffered from frontal temporal dementia for 10 years before his death. Although the league adopted the “88 Plan” that provided up to $88,000 a year for nursing or day care, or 50 grand for home care, that wasn’t enough to provide everything Mackey needed. His wife, Sylvia, had to go back to work at age 56 to fill the gaps. Mackey was a pioneer at tight end, transforming the spot from a glorified offensive tackle into a downfield threat in the emerging passing game. His talents and skills helped pave the way for Kellen Winslow, Tony Gonzalez and many others who made (and make) millions playing the position. For his efforts, Mackey received a yellow jacket from Canton and a pathetic endgame of confusion and sadness.
Smith is no doubt receiving pushback from myopic current players who don’t care that those who came before them are struggling on meager pensions to handle gigantic medical bills for treatment of conditions brought on by their years in the NFL. What today’s stars must realize is that some day they will be Old Vets in need of knee and hip replacements and perhaps battling the same brain injuries that plagued Mackey and others. Try getting into a health plan with the pre-existing conditions that come from years of high-speed collisions and incessant pounding. You might as well be a leper.
This collective bargaining agreement has the opportunity to take a landmark stance for retired players. Instead of forgetting them, the NFL and its union have the opportunity to provide them with security and care. And don’t try to give me anything about the cost. The league will renegotiate all of its TV contracts in the next few years, and the price tags are expected to increase dramatically. ESPN is already paying $1.8-1.9 billion just to televise Monday Night Football beginning in 2014. That’s an increase of nearly $800 million a year from the current deal. And ESPN doesn’t even get to broadcast a playoff game, because it’s a cable network. Imagine what Fox, NBC and CBS will have to pony up. The increases could provide the funds necessary to guarantee coverage.
It’s not surprising the current players are resistant to such an idea. They are fighting for the best wage package they can get for this and future seasons. They have mouths to feed, posses to support and Bentley payments to make. I get it. Meanwhile, league owners are attempting to maximize annual profits and boost the values of their franchises, the better to make down payments on private islands. But it’s time for Goodell and Smith to play the roles of grown-ups here and impress upon both sides the need to stop the dirty secret that stains the NFL’s reputation and legacy. Former players are suffering, and they lack the resources to take care of themselves and meet their substantial medical needs.
A few years ago, I was walking into an Eagles pre-season game, and I spotted a large middle-aged man shambling across the parking lot, carrying a briefcase. Turns out it was former NFL defensive lineman Ray Agnew, who played 11 seasons with the Patriots, Giants and Rams. Watching him walk was painful. His legs were mangled, and his back was battered. He had a job scouting for St. Louis, and his pension and savings from his years in the league were no doubt enough to provide him with a solid financial foundation. But the health problems Agnew will face going forward are substantial. He’ll need at least two joint replacements in the next 10-15 years and perhaps a second round should he reach his late 70s or early 80s. Arthritis will be a constant companion, as will the chronic pain he no doubt already battles. And no one knows right now whether the repeated shots to the head he absorbed in the trenches will produce an early onset of Alzheimer’s. Agnew is hardly a unique story. He gave his body to professional football, and it’s time for the sport to give back.
As Smith and Goodell finalize the CBA, let’s hope they have the compassion and class to provide for those who came before. The NFL has a bright future, but it can’t forget the sacrifices made by those in the past.
John Mackey was a giant during his playing career, and his legacy should include more than just big catches and touchdowns. Do right by him.
* Looking for villains in the Big East’s recent reticence regarding Villanova’s football membership? A well-placed league source says Rutgers and Syracuse were adamant the Wildcats did not receive full membership. Seems they weren’t too keen on Nova’s stadium situation and didn’t like the idea that the ‘Cats could tap into their recruiting areas. Keep that in mind when the Scarlet Knights and Orange come to visit during future hoop seasons.
* The Phillies’ top three starters are on their way to some big innings totals. If they stay on their current pace, Roy Halladay (255), Cliff Lee (244) and Cole Hamels (235) will pile up the work. The projected numbers will be the highest in Lee’s and Hamels’ careers, while Halladay’s would represent the second-most he has thrown. They look invincible now, but the Phillies had better be careful.
* One of the concerns the Eagles had to address when they planned for a possible late start to training camp was whether Lehigh officials would be able to get the dorm rooms in which the players stay in suitable shape for students when they return to campus in late August. Seems the Birds aren’t the most thoughtful houseguests. Stay classy, fellas.