It’s no secret that the NFL and the NFL Players Association have never advocated for a level playing field when it comes to the NFL Pension Plan. I’m not talking about “how much money” former players receive, although that is an issue that needs to be addressed. I’m talking about “who qualifies for a pension” and who gets other types of benefits as a result of being “vested” in the NFL Pension Plan.
There has been a lot of talk about increasing NFL pensions for pre-1993 players in the next CBA, but there is still one glaring inequality that exists to this day: Pre-1993 players need 4 years to become vested in the NFL Pension Plan and post-1992 players need only 3 years.
That’s not very fair, is it?
I think it’s fair to say that until this problem is tackled, the playing field will never be level.
Speaking of Fairness……..
I understand why the FAIR Board hasn’t included the pre-1993 three-year players in their advocacy. The current NFLPA Director, DeMaurice Smith and all previous NFLPA Executive Directors have never made this a high priority in CBA negotiations. Why? You'll have to ask them, but I do have my suspicions.
For years we were told by NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw that the money just wasn’t there for the kind of pension increases and changes we sought. Then, after his death in 2008, we found out that his estate would receive $15 million from the NFLPA. Court records revealed not only the $15 million payment, but an additional $1.73 million in “past due compensation” was also paid to his widow. The Upshaw’s lived in Great Falls, Virginia where they kept eight luxury vehicles and a 32-foot boat. Upshaw also owned a home in the Lake Tahoe area of California.
I’m not saying that former players were short-changed because Upshaw was lining his own pockets, but he always made us feel like we were asking for something totally unrealistic. Under Upshaw, former players received modest increases in their pensions during his 25 year reign at the NFLPA. Nonetheless, it is significant to note that in none of the CBA extensions that occurred in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2011, were there any sincere attempts to include the pre-1993 three-year players into the NFL Pension Plan.
Jim Brown recently wrote an article in the New York Times entitled Football Has Forgotten the Men That Made it Great. His article talks about the need for pension increases for pre-1993 players, but he does not specifically advocate for 3-year players to be included in the Pension Plan. In all fairness to him, I’m not sure where he stands on this issue, or if he was even aware of this. Nonetheless, I would like to answer the rhetorical statement he poses in the last sentence of his article, where he says: “The question is whether the league and the players want to step up for the men on whose knees, shoulders and brains the N.F.L. was built.”
Before I answer that question, I want to pose a few hypothetical questions of my own.
What would have happened if Jim Brown had gone down with a career ending knee, shoulder, or brain injury in his third year as a player?
Would he be in the Hall of Fame? The answer is no.
Would he be considered one of the greatest player of all time? Of course not.
Would he be eligible for an NFL Pension? No, he would not. And that needs to be corrected.
Over the past 100 years of NFL Football, thousands of players have had their playing days cut short due to injuries. That’s no fault of their own. Football is a brutal game. Damaged players are discarded for healthy players. In this holiday season it would be wise for all “vested” players to remember these words of wisdom: “There, but for the Grace of God, go I!”
If these players had not been injured, who knows how many could have gone on to become one of the greatest players in NFL history - or at the very least, qualify for an NFL pension. Some people will say “If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a Merry Christmas?"
The answer is yes! It would be merrier Christmas if all players with 3 years were included in the NFL pension plan. If it’s good enough for every 3-year player since 1993, then why shouldn’t it be good enough for the guys who built the League and played in the 50’s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s?
How many players are we talking about?
I did some research and found that from 1950 to 1992, there were approximately 650 pre-1993 players that had exactly three years of playing pro football - and were still alive today. I didn’t go back further than 1950 because almost all of those players are now deceased.
Profootballreference.com (where I gathered this info) only counts the years that a player was on an “active” roster. They do not include the seasons that a player was on the injured reserve list, or the pup (physically unable to perform) list. On the other hand, the NFL does give a credited season to a player who is on IR or the PUP list. If I had to guess, I’d say that out of the 650 players, about 150 of them eventually qualified for a pension due to the IR or PUP list years that were added to their 3 active seasons. With that said, I'm guesstimating that 500 pre-1993 three-year players are not receiving pensions.
Another thing to keep in mind; These former players are not getting any younger. Every year, I send out a list of the players that have passed away during the year. On average, about 130 former players are dying annually, so even if these players are included in the pension, they won’t be receiving it for a long period of time.
Historically, the money for retired player pensions has come out of the active player’s share of revenue from the League, but in the last CBA that changed for the very first time. The Rookie Salary Scale produced enough savings for the owners and players to each give a share of their cut of the money to what is known as the Legacy Benefit. 80 Hall of Famers stood up for this solution in the last CBA. All Pre-1993 vested (4 seasons) players received an increase in their pensions. It amounted to $620 million over 10 years. That’s not a lot of money when you consider it was divvied up among 4,500 pre-1993 vested players.
During the past 25 years, there has been no real advocacy by the NFL or NFL Players Association to include the pre-1993 three-year players in the Pension Plan. I feel like I have been a voice in the wilderness on this issue – but I’m hoping that will change. I recently spoke to Beasley Reece, the Executive Director of the NFL Alumni, and Mike McBath, who sits on the NFLPA Former Player Board of Directors and they told me that this will be a priority in the next CBA.
In my opinion, this is an issue that should unite all former players. I have received numerous emails from pre-1993 players asking me why no effort has been made to include 3-year players in the NFL pension plan. I have no “good” answer for them. I hope everyone can see the injustice here and start to question why this has never been corrected in any of the past four CBA extensions.
Right after I sent out the Jim Brown article about the “Forgotten Men,” a lot a pre-1993 unvested former players with 3 years in the NFL started emailing me with their concerns. Here’s one of those emails from Ronnie Washington:
“What about the guys that have three years before 1993. The NFL has forgotten about those guys also. They don’t get anything, but we were a part of the NFL for three years. Now that’s bullshit. Three years is three years in the National Football League. Those guys were still a part of the league. They also need help. They have injuries, medical bills and special conditions, but nobody thinks about those people. It’s a shame, there’s enough money for those guys to get something. How come FAIR doesn’t address those guys. We were a part of the NFL too!”
I support the FAIR proposal 100%, but I would like to see the NFL and NFLPA also give serious consideration to including all 3 year players in the NFL Pension Plan. It would also make them eligible for other benefits like the NFL Disability Plan, the 88 Plan and the Long Term Health Care Plan.
The NFL and NFLPA have effectively “horse-collared” the pre-1993 three-year players and have prevented them from accessing these other valuable benefits. There is no rational explanation as to why they are excluding them, other than the fact that it will require more money to be put into the NFL Pension Plan and other benefit plans.
So how did the eligibility for a pension get reduced from four years to three years in the 1993 CBA?
The NFL has known for quite some time that the average career is only about 3.5 years. That’s why the League always tried to set the bar at four years to receive a pension. Less money for former players = more money for the owners and active players to split among themselves.
In 1993 the active players finally gained the leverage - due to anti-trust court rulings - to get the League to reduce the pension to 3 years, but they did not make it retroactive, so now we have a situation where a current player with three years in the NFL (2018-2020) will receive a pension of approximately $71,655 at age 65 and a player with 3 years before 1993 receives absolutely Nothing, Nada, Zero, Goose Egg. In football it’s called a shut-out.
Again, I ask…….Is that fair?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have my suspicions as to why nothing has ever been done to correct this injustice. I think some vested players believed that if we included all 3-year players in the NFL Pension Plan, it might reduce the amount of money available for pension increases for pre-1993 vested players. That might be true, but it’s no excuse for not addressing this problem. In fact, Major League Baseball had the same issue with their former players and they did something about it!
I don’t know about other former players, but I would be willing to take a smaller increase in my pension if I knew it would help these pre-1993 three-year players. They deserve the same kind of pension that thousands of post-1992 players are eligible to receive.
I am not suggesting that the Pension Plan is the only way that the unvested 3-year players can be assisted in their retirement. Instead of a monthly pension, maybe the NFL and NFLPA could entertain the idea of a lump sum payment as a way of recognizing their contributions to the game. At this stage in their lives, I think many of them would be quite happy with that kind of solution.
NFL owners and League Management need to address this issue.
NFLPA leadership and the active players need to address this issue.
NFLPA Former Player Chapter Presidents and their members need to address this issue.
NFL Alumni Chapters and their members need to address this issue.
If you would like them to address this issue, send them an email and let them know. Here are their addresses:
To get this done, we will need to practice what we preached as pro football players – TEAMWORK!
Your alumni brother,
ps: Have yourself a Merry, Merry Christmas!