Pro Football Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea tries to stay in touch with other former players. Sometimes that leads to difficult moments.
Bethea tells me about one phone call he had.
"Old guy that was playing before me, and I loved to talk to him to hear about the old times," Bethea, 72, recalls. "We talked about 20 minutes, 25 minutes. And after we hung up, phone rang about two or three minutes later.
"And so I answered the phone, and the person on the other end — the lady — said, 'Who is this?' And so I told her who it was. She says, 'Oh, Joe ... Joe didn't know who he was talking to right then.' And that hurt."
Most sports fans probably know that many former NFL players are struggling physically and mentally. But what they might not know is that many older NFL alums have financial problems, too.
"I think about the little pension that we get — I call it a little pension compared to others — that money comes in and goes right out for doctor bills, for copays, for medicines," Bethea says.
Bethea, who played 16 seasons with the Houston Oilers, says he receives $3,300 a month from the league. That comes to about $40,000 a year.
"They're basically saying, 'Look, give us the honor of pension parity before we all disappear.' "Ken Belson, New York Times
But he’d be getting more if one thing were different about his career: the year he retired. Bethea and other players who retired before 1993 are not eligible for a range of benefits available to players who retired after 1993 — and their pensions are about a third the size of current players’.
"We're the ones that built this, and we're forgotten," Bethea says.
Bethea is trying to change that. He’s part of a new group that’s calling for equitable pensions for pre-’93 retirees. There’s about 4,000 of them who qualify.
The Roots Of The Divide
Belson says the roots of this pre-’93/post-’93 divide go back to the ’70s. Football was overtaking baseball as the most popular sport in the U.S. And in the late ’80s, serious labor strife began.
"I think the players realized that, 'Hey, wait a second. We want a bigger share of the pie," Belson says.
The players wanted full free agency — that would mean bigger salaries because teams would have to bid for them in a free market. Not surprisingly, the owners resisted.
For five years, the two sides failed to sign a labor deal. Finally, in 1993 they came to an agreement.
"The players got a full version of free agency," Belson says. "In return, there was a salary cap put in as sort of a stopgap on runaway spending."
And the players received something else.
"A whole host of generous benefits were put in: annuities, 401(k)s, enhanced severance, more years of healthcare coverage for retirees," Belson explains.
But these new benefits would not be available to players who’d already retired.
The agreement, Belson says, effectively put the pre-’93 retirees in a different class.
"No. 1, they didn't play with full free agency, so they didn't make nearly the amount of money some of the current players were making," Belson says. "But they also were left with relatively small pensions and none of the other fringe benefits that the new players were getting."
And in the years after 1993, Belson says the gap between the groups only widened.
"You know, look — if your pension benefit is set at $250 for every year you played, and there's no cost of living increase, it diminishes over time with inflation. That's just a fact," he says.
Trying To Fight Back
For years, pre-’93 retirees and others have been speaking out.
Jane Arnett — whose husband, Jon, is a pre-’93 retiree — says she's been advocating since 2002.
Arnett says she realized there was a real problem when Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane passed away.
"And there was no money to bury him," Arnett says. "There was talk of him having a pauper’s funeral, which, unfortunately, happens to a lot of people. But it was shocking that it would happen to a man like that."
Arnett says people did eventually step in to help cover the funeral costs — but the situation raised red flags.
"I started asking around to other people, 'What was going on?' And suddenly, there was an eruption of stories — similar stories," she says.
Arnett says she came to learn there was a program available to help NFL alums in emergencies: a dire-need fund. She says it was a wonderful resource for men who were struggling to pay their rent, mortgage or medical bills.
"And I think the thing that shocked me and really woke me up was one entry that was for a pair of eyeglasses," Arnett recalls. "I realize — and we all realize — that there are many, many people in this world that are in that kind of a situation. It's not uncommon. What concerned me was, to me, this was family, and that someone would reach the point in his life that he couldn't even afford the $219 for his eyeglasses."
Arnett says that made her and other advocates think that more should to be done to help retirees before they reached that level of desperation.
"We really came to the conclusion as a group that, perhaps, an increase of pensions would make sense," she says.
Arnett says they tried to reach out to the NFL Players Association.
"We were met with some great hostility," she says. "We were really treated as if we were just troublemakers, we advocates."
In 2006, former NFLPA head Gene Upshaw was asked why retiree benefits were so low on the list of the union’s priorities.
"They don't hire me, and they can't fire me," Upshaw reportedly said. "They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary."
(For the record, Upshaw, who died in 2008, has said the quote was taken out of context.)
In 2011, the Players Association, under new head DeMaurice Smith, managed to secure a pension increase for pre-’93 players.
"And that was certainly welcome, but it's an extra 20, 30, 40 percent, depending on the player, off a very small number," Belson explains. "They're still one-third the amount that the current players are getting."
"I think a lot of our listeners will just have the gut reaction: the NFL makes so much money — why can't the owners just pony up and give these 4,000 pre-’93 retirees the same pension benefits?" I ask.
"The owners didn't build the league into a $14-billion business by giving things away," Belson says.
One More Shot
The current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021. If pre-’93 retirees don’t get equal pensions this time around, there may not be many left to help when the next deal comes up.
So pre-’93 retirees are taking one more shot — and going through the owners isn’t their primary strategy.
Before we get to that strategy, I want to tell you about the person leading this new effort: lawyer Lisa Marie Riggins.
"In addition to being an attorney, I happen to be married to a former NFL player, John Riggins," Lisa Marie says.
John, who played running back in the NFL from 1971 to 1985, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992.
"Now that I'm an ex-football player, I'm actually doing what I do best — I've become ne'er-do-well," John says. "Well, I'm actually a little bit more than that. I'm the camp cook. I'm, kind of, the overseer of everything domestic in the house, and also I'm the landscape guy. If we had a pool, I'd be the pool boy."
(For the record, John also works in broadcasting.)
John and Lisa Marie got married in 1996. A little over a decade later, they moved to Washington, D.C., where John had finished his playing career. Lisa Marie started meeting more former players. She realized many were in “untenable situations.”
Then, in October 2015, Lisa Marie was on a late-night flight home from California. She happened to be sitting next to a woman named Blair Watters who worked in government. They started talking about the NFL concussion settlement.
"And then segued into the pensions, because people always assume, 'Well, at least they have a good pension,' " Lisa Marie recalls. "And it's, like, 'No, no, no, no. No, no, no.' And then you start to explain it. And for her, it was shock.' "
Lisa Marie says she explained that the pre-’93 retirees didn’t have a legal option to try to improve their pensions. And that’s when her seatmate gave her some advice.
"She said, 'You know, when the courts don't work, you've got to go through a different door. So you need to get into the court of public opinion and really mine that ore,' ” Lisa Marie recalls.
Lisa Marie says this was a turning point. She decided she had to get the story of the pre-’93 retirees out to the public. She started trying to set up meetings with lobbyists and other people around D.C.
"People met with me solely because of my last name," she says. "So I had this currency that I felt like I needed to use."
Finally, Lisa Marie Riggins realized she needed to have a conversation with the general partner at her new law firm, where she’d been given the corner office. She explained that she needed some time to focus on the issue.
"And I said, 'I think it's going to take me about six months. So I need to just back off any cases and just take whatever I can take,' " she recalls.
Lisa Marie started laying the groundwork to launch a public advocacy campaign. She started working to form a 501(c)3. She retained a lobbying firm to do research. She formed a board. Six months went by. Then another six months.
"I guess after a year into it, the general partner of my firm said, 'So, are you coming back?' " Lisa Marie recalls. "And I said, 'Well, just a little bit more. I just need a little bit more. I just need a little bit more.' Well, it's been three years, and I lost the corner office. And that's OK. I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve that real estate. This is a full-time job. And it's not a paying job. And we could use my income."
Lisa Marie says her current income is around $20,000.
"I do a case a month, at the most," she says.
Lisa Marie says her husband’s been 100 percent behind her.
"As long as the power is still coming into the house, then this is not an issue," John says with a laugh. "But if that happens, then we may have to revisit this."
Fairness For Athletes In Retirement
The outcome of this work has been the launch of a group called FAIR — Fairness for Athletes in Retirement.
Belson says FAIR has a straightforward goal.
"They're not asking for the annuities, they're not asking for the 401(k) plans, all the other things that the current generations of players get," he says. "They just want the same pension calculations that the current players get. That's all they want."
And here’s where we get back to one significant piece of FAIR’s strategy: its primary focus is not getting NFL owners to simply give more money. Instead, it’s focused on the players’ union — and getting the union to allocate more of the money for player benefits in the upcoming CBA to pre-’93 pensions.
That means reaching the players’ union membership: current players.
"I think there's a big responsibility on them to recognize the pioneers that helped them get the $90-million guaranteed contacts of where they are today," John says.
FAIR plans to hire pension consultants who can present possible solutions to the players’ union. The group has also been working with a PR firm — and has released videos featuring the stories of pre-’93 retirees, trying to raise awareness.
And Lisa Marie and John aren’t going at this issue alone.
"When I heard from Lisa Marie, I thought, 'No, there's no more beating that drum for me right now,' " says Jane Arnett, who'd stepped away from advocating around 2015. "And she asked if we could speak. And when we spoke and I heard how reasonable, how well thought out and how professionally she was organizing this effort, I had to hear more. I had to listen."
Jane Arnett is now on FAIR’s board of advisors.
"I’m very clear on the fact that this is a baton race and I’m at the very end," Lisa Marie says.
72-year-old Elvin Bethea is also on the board. He plans on speaking out until he dies.
"Whether it be another five years in front of me, but at least when I leave here, at least I’ll know I tried," he says. "We’re not asking for the moon. Just a little more assistance."
Ken Belson says it’s still too early to say what will happen. He says he hasn’t seen any indication that current players will make retiree pensions a priority. But there’s still time for FAIR to make its case.
Lisa Marie Riggins is cautiously optimistic that current players will listen — and she knows there isn’t much room for error.
"This is their last shot," she says of the pre-’93 retirees. "If we don't get on the agenda list and move some hearts and the stakeholders, then this will just be kind of a sad chapter."
This segment aired on January 10, 2019.