By David Brandolph
As the National Football League basks in the glory of Super Bowl weekend, thousands of former players who laid the foundation for the league’s prosperity are fighting for fair pensions.
The NFL’s season will conclude this Sunday when either the Los Angeles Rams or New England Patriots lay claim as league champion with a victory in Super Bowl LIII. Work will be far from over, however, for former NFL star John Riggins and other former players. They are attempting to raise public awareness about how the league and its players’ union have resisted calls to make the pensions of some 4,000 aging past players reflect the financial success of the league, which now has annual revenue of more than $14 billion.
Riggins, in a recent USA Today article, says that the league and the union – the National Football League Players Association – have forsaken former players, like him, who retired before 1993, the year that a court settlement paved the way for a collective bargaining agreement permitting free agency. Under free agency, players who reach a certain level of experience are able to negotiate salaries with teams competing for their services.
Retired players from Riggins’ era receive pensions that pale when compared to more recent retirees and current players, the newspaper said. The article doesn’t provide specific pension information for post-1993 retirees. Instead, it compares the pension of former Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, about $30,000 per year, with the $220,000 maximum for similarly vested retirees of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association who played in the 1970s.
“It appears the NFLPA and their constituents are only worried about themselves” and would like us to “go away,” Riggins said. Further bitterness stems from the fact that many of the pre-’93 players participated in the four player strikes during the ’70s and ’80s that ultimately led to the 1993 CBA and system overhaul that brought about free agency and lifted compensation for current players, the article said.
“The other leagues – hockey, baseball, basketball – they all realize that the pioneers deserve the same thing their current guys get as far as the retirement (benefit) goes,” Riggins said.
No Seat at Bargaining Table
The problem for the pre-’93ers is that they won’t have a seat at the bargaining table when the NFL and NFLPA negotiate to extend the current collective bargaining agreement that expires after the 2020 season.
To address this problem, the older players have created a non-profit organization, Fairness for Athletes in Retirement, led by Riggins’ wife, attorney Lisa Marie Riggins. FAIR has launched an effort to educate the public and current players about the unfairness of their current benefit levels in advance of the next CBA negotiations. On its website, FAIR describes how more recent NFL retirees are entitled to about three times the payments that pre-‘93ers receive, and how years of head and body trauma have left many of the aging retirees with severe memory loss, dementia and other disabilities.
Karen Friedman, the PRC’s executive vice president and policy director, told USA Today in the article that the PRC previously provided technical assistance to former NFL stars Johnny Unitas and Ordell Braase and their other teammates from the Baltimore Colts (before the team’s move to Indianapolis) in their quest for benefit increases.
“If the NFL is making record profits, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t want to raise the pensions of those who helped build the league,” she said.
PRC has worked with other retiree groups advocating for enhanced benefits. In past years, the Center helped Red Cross, FMC and GE retirees campaign for cost of living adjustments in their pensions.
The Center also works with retirees on a variety of other pension justice issues. Currently, a top priority is our work with retired truck drivers, iron workers, musicians, and laborers to stop cuts in their financially-troubled union-negotiated multiemployer pension plans.
This Sunday, consider taking a time out from the game to celebrate the former greats of football by checking out the FAIR website.