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Rep. Linda Sanchez Headshot

When the Game is Over

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This Sunday as the Steelers and the Cardinals face off against each other in the Super Bowl, a game that will last maybe a few hours, I am reminded of the lasting effects that may follow these players, possibly for the rest of their lives.

The National Football League (NFL) is considered to be the most brutal major American professional sports league: half of all players retire because of injury, sixty percent of players suffer a concussion, at least one quarter of players suffer multiple concussions, and nearly two-thirds suffer an injury serious enough to sideline them for at least half of a football season. To be sure, these football players not only choose this career, but they actually dedicate themselves to training and competing for jobs in this elite sports league -- knowing full well about the game's violent nature.

Football is a unique career and once it's over, it's really over. But just what happens to the player when the game is over? What happens when injuries short cut a career and bring on early retirement? And what happens to the player whose physical injuries hinder or even totally preclude future employment?

Last year, as Chair of a Judiciary Subcommittee, I held a hearing to explore these questions as well as the numerous press accounts concerning the NFL's treatment of its retired players and the injuries many former players have suffered. This hearing and subsequent research and press attention shone a spotlight on apparent shortcomings in the former football players' disability and pension benefits plan and sparked a significant amount of passionate criticism. The various stories relayed by some NFL retirees and their families demonstrated concern not only with how the plan is structured, but also with how it is administered.

Brent Boyd, a former lineman who played for the Minnesota Vikings and suffered numerous concussions, ended up with a permanent brain injury -- but it wasn't diagnosed until 13 years after his retirement, after he had already lost his home, his car, his first wife, and a succession of jobs. Other players testified to disabilities that arose out of the brutal nature of their game, being sent from doctor to doctor after filing claims for football-related disabilities, then having the claims denied even when the evidence seemed to show otherwise. It was reported by AARP that even Johnny Unitas, once called the greatest quarterback of the game, was denied assistance by the NFL.

After the hearing, I was heartened to learn that the league, the union and the retirees were trying to work out their differences. In addition, the NFL and NFL Players Association said they would use Social Security standards to define disabilities, which should make it easier to qualify.

However, in 2007 only 284 former players out of nearly 10,000 retirees currently receive long-term disability benefits. That translates to less than 3% of retired players, a very small number for any industry, much less one as physically demanding as professional football. The fundamental question then becomes whether this disability process is fair for the retired employees of the NFL. The evidence suggests that the vast majority of former players needing benefits do not receive them. What is even more troubling is that through projects such as NFL Films, the NFL continues to profit off those very same players who are denied benefits.

A group of players held a news conference on Thursday in an attempt to deliver a message to the NFL and the NFL Players Association that they are still dissatisfied with the current pension system for retired players. Their strategy to improve the current system is to make today's players more aware of the plight of some of the aging NFL alumni, some of whom have received help from the Gridiron Greats organization, which has doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to former players in need. While I applaud the Gridiron Greats for their outstanding work, I also find it a shame that disabled retirees from a profitable, multi-billion dollar organization like the NFL have to rely on the kindness and generosity of others, rather than on a fair and just retirement and disability plan.

Essentially, these former employees, or players, are being forced to lobby help from the new employees that took their place. While these are certainly positive steps, I fear that the bottom line may not have changed. The NFL, which provides an excellent entertainment product and profits handsomely from doing so, should treat its employees who played a part in making what it is today with equal respect. While last year's hearing prompted new insight, it is clear that the questions of whether retired players actually benefit still needs to be addressed. I and several of my Congressional colleagues are investigating ways that we can continue to disentangle this situation. But what we are really hopeful for is that by the time of the next Super Bowl, we can celebrate secure in the knowledge that active and retired players are getting a fair deal.

Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez represents the 39th Congressional District of California.