This week, a federal jury in San Francisco ordered the National Football League Players Association to pay $28.1 million to retired players. The jury said the association had failed to protect the interests of former players.
WBUR sports commentator Bill Littlefield hopes that decision will now encourage the NFL union to show a stronger commitment to its retired members.
Monday's verdict in the class action law suit means The National Football League Players Association has been found guilty of cheating its most vulnerable members.
The federal jury in San Francisco agreed with the attorneys representing the retired players that the NFLPA had cut them out of payments they should have received from video game companies using the images of the retirees. The union had advised the electronics companies to alter those images so they wouldn't have to pay the players.
More than two thousand retired players are party to the successful suit, so the multi-million dollar award may not be large for any of the individuals concerned. But the precedent could be significant. If the retired players can build on the successful assertion that their union shouldn't be allowed to neglect their interests in favor of further enriching active players, more of the men who were damaged during their careers may get some relief from the injuries that have diminished their lives.
By now the stories of Andre Waters, Mike Webster, Terry Long, and various other veterans of the National Football League who suffered irreversible brain damage as a result of playing pro football are well known. And these grim sagas of delirium, homelessness, and premature death may be more common than previously assumed. In his new book, Giants Among Men, Jack Cavanaugh includes the story of Hardy Brown, whom he calls "the meanest man in the NFL" during the 1950's. After his career ended, Brown was diagnosed with dementia caused in part, according to physicians, by "many blows to the head" which he suffered as a player. He died in a mental institution in 1991.
Historically, the teams and the leagues that have employed pro football players might be charitably characterized as negligent in terms of taking responsibility for damage to their workforce. The opposition of physicians employed by the teams notwithstanding, recent research, including the clinical evidence of brain damage to players dead in middle age, has brought some pressure for change in that attitude. Perhaps the next step will be for the union to more energetically join the struggle to address the health and insure the security of the players who helped build the NFL into the colossus it is today.
Bill Littlefield comments on sports for WBUR and hosts "Only a Game" each Saturday at 7 a.m. and again at 6 p.m.
This program aired on November 14, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.