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Most NFL Players Choosing to Collect a Reduced Pension at 45

October 20, 1987|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

Vested players, in the language of pro football, are those who have played at least four years in the National Football League since 1959, when the league established its current pension plan.

The vested are the veterans, in other words. And they have come up for discussion during the NFL's labor-management fight for several reasons:

--The average former lineman or former back getting an NFL pension is receiving less than $385 a month, less than $4,600 a year.

--In the 28 years since the plan began, 72 of the NFL's vested players have died.

--Their average age at death was 38.

--Another 324 vested old pros are still alive and collecting pensions after choosing payment at the age of their choice--45, 55 or more.

--In line with insurance company practices, players settling for pensions at age 45 are getting only about half as much as those who wait until their 55th birthdays.

--But, shockingly, despite this disparity, and in the face of evidence that a life expectancy into the 70s is the U.S. norm today, 285 of the NFL's eligible vested players, or 88% of the total, chose to begin collecting at 45.

"They don't think they'll live to be 55," an executive of the NFL Players Assn. said the other day.

The executive is Michele J. (Mickey) Yaras, the union's director of benefits, who keeps the records and provided the statistics.

"The guys playing today tell me the same thing," she said. "Most of them think they have a life expectancy in the early 50s.

"There's no way to prove it. To my knowledge, no (longevity) study has ever been made of football players. But I've been here since 1978. I know what they think and say and do. They don't expect to be around too long."

One of the major influences has apparently been the widespread use of steroids.

According to some NFL trainers, the players are very much aware that steroids reduce life expectancy, but they use them in increasing numbers even so--to gain weight--because pro teams now want 300-pound linemen.

"Steroids affect liver function, and the liver is such an important organ," Ram physician Robert Kerlan said.

"I'd think anyone using steroids over a prolonged period of time would probably have a lower life expectancy. But statistical evidence is lacking.

"No scientific study that I'm aware of has ever proved the link between football and a shorter life."

That's the problem, the experts agree. No actuarial people have compiled any data in this field--for insurance companies or anyone else--because the base of players is so small.

"Only about 22,000 people have ever played NFL football," Joel Bussert, the league's director of player personnel, said.

And insurance companies think in terms of millions or more, not specialized groups of 22,000.

Margaret H. Mushinski, a New York researcher for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., said: "We don't have any data, medical or statistical, on football players (because) there are so few of them."

Linda Delgadillo, director of communications for the national Society of Actuaries, said: "(Insurance) companies do look at group trends--that is, big (groups). NFL players as a group are such a minuscule percentage (of U.S. males)."

In the minds of the players, however, the problem is hardly minuscule.

"The thing we need most is a study of former NFL players," Yaras said. "The league is in position to (underwrite) a study, but hasn't done it. Hardly anything is more important in this (area)."

She said the players need the data to make informed judgments on the best age to start drawing a pension. And the negotiators need it to make realistic longevity assumptions.

Two kinds of information are required, and one is already on file.

"The names of the players (on each NFL roster) are generally available going back to the 1920s," the NFL's Bussert said.

What isn't readily available, everyone concedes, is what happened to them--particularly to those who played three or four years or fewer. Many could be tracked down, but it would be costly, and nobody has been willing to fund the project.

Here are some related matters that NFL people are talking about this month:

Question: If the NFL's pension plan only began in 1959, what of the players who were in the league before then?

Answer: Of the thousands who played before 1959, only 598 are on NFL pensions. And payments only started this year. "Most (recipients) are in their 50s and early 60s," Lisa Hatter said at the NFL office. "The list of eligibles is between 900 and 950, but some of them can't be found, and some haven't yet turned 55."

Q: What's happened to the rest of them?

A: Many are dead, and others couldn't meet the NFL's eligibility requirements. Although a pro football player's career expectancy is about four years, the league only agreed to pay five-year veterans. And it only agreed to that last winter after years of lobbying by the two player groups, the NFL Alumni Assn. and the NFL Players Assn.

Q: How are pension payments figured for pre-'59 players?

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