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System of checks and imbalances

Retirement benefits in baseball, NBA far outstrip those in NFL, whose program has ignited heavy criticism. But none is immune to controversy.

February 27, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Baseball has been very good to Larry Dierker.

The right-hander tossed a no-hitter late in his 14-year career with the Houston Astros before moving to the broadcast booth and eventually becoming the team's manager. He also wrote books, newspaper columns and a blog about the game.

And in two years, Dierker, 60, will begin to receive $180,000 in annual retirement benefits -- payback for sacrifices made in 1972, when, as a young union representative, he rallied support for baseball's first strike, over a pension funding dispute with owners.

"Nothing is what most 20-somethings know about pensions," said Dierker, who earned $125,000 at the height of his playing career and credits longtime players' union executive Marvin Miller for educating him about the importance of retirement planning. "I didn't realize how much the time value of money would change things for me over the years."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Sports pensions: An article in Tuesday's Sports section said former NBA player Bob Elliott was 55 and lived in Phoenix. He is 51 and lives in Tucson. The article also said Elliott earned $22,500 in his rookie year, matching the league minimum in 1977. But Elliott never disclosed his salary for that rookie season.

Baseball's pension -- funded in 1947, two years before steelworkers won their pension -- is the gold standard for union-represented athletes. But even its plan, which is relatively lucrative when compared with those offered by the NFL and NBA, has drawn criticism from former players who failed to win benefits or have seen the value of their monthly checks eroded by time and inflation.

The resentment now spans those three major American professional sports leagues and has only grown in recent years as franchise owners and current athletes enjoy the financial wealth created by lucrative broadcast rights deals.

Contrast what baseball will pay Dierker to what the NFL will provide former lineman Conrad Dobler, who at 56 would receive $24,000 annually if he were to immediately begin taking his pension -- or $48,000 if he could unsnarl his finances and delay retirement until age 62.

The 10-year NFL veteran, who has had several knee operations and other ailments, maintains that he can't afford to take his relatively small pension now because doing so would preclude him from pursuing a long-contested disability claim with the NFL Players Assn.

"We're not begging, and we're not trying to take something we don't think we deserve," Dobler said. "We're simply trying to get back something that we worked so hard to get in the first place."

The bad blood is the result of a generational conflict that is unique to the sports world.

"The soul of unionism, whether we're talking coal miners in the 19th century, janitors today or NBA players, is solidarity," said University of California professor Harley Shaiken, who studies labor issues. "You are working together to improve everyone's position."

Union members typically work for decades, which gives them plenty of time to protect long-term interests. But professional athletes have brief careers, lose their union vote after their final game, and must depend upon subsequent generations to safeguard their retirement interests.

Federal law requires union leaders to represent the interests of current and future players rather than aging athletes, so improvements to previously negotiated benefits must be approved by current union members -- and often by the franchise owners who foot the bills.

Many old-timers argue that today's athletes and owners have a moral obligation to care for players whose sacrifices set the table for today's eye-popping salaries, improved playing conditions and the soaring value of professional sports franchises.

"We won a pension plan by tearing it out of the hides of owners who had us under slave contracts," said Bernie Parrish, a defensive back with the Cleveland Browns during the 1960s and now a fierce critic of the NFL Players Assn.'s treatment of old-timers. "We won the pension plan that is a gift to today's players. But the older guys have been getting" a bad deal.

The generation gap is most evident in the NFL.

Retired NFL stars Mike Ditka and Jerry Kramer recently used a Super Bowl XLI news conference to promote a sports memorabilia auction to raise money to benefit retired football players.

Former Los Angeles Rams great Merlin Olsen is working with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to find sports marketing opportunities for former players. And Parrish is pressing Congress, which already has held one hearing, to dig deeper into his former union's retirement and disability plans.

"It's just disgusting," said Kramer, a former Green Bay Packers star who receives a $358 monthly football pension. "The physical and economic hardships many guys are forced to live with are due to the lack of an adequate pension and disability package."

Old-timers have been especially harsh in their criticism of Gene Upshaw, a former player who is the union's executive director. The NFL Players Assn. repeatedly declined requests in recent months to discuss pension and retiree medical benefit plans. But, during a Feb. 2 news conference, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that football should "reevaluate to see what we can do more to address the issues and we'll do that."

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