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NFL adversaries try to resolve retiree funding

Today's meeting includes disgruntled ex-players, union leaders, league officials and NFL charities.

July 24, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Every year, professional football donates tens of millions of dollars to community organizations, charitable groups and other nonprofits. But IRS filings show that only a tiny percentage of that funding is earmarked for charities that can specifically help former NFL players who've fallen on hard times.

That rankles a growing number of these aging warriors, who are engaged in a bitter and increasingly public battle with the NFL establishment over the plight of the men who made the game what it is today. Some retirees are struggling with financial and medical problems and are blaming pension and disability plans for having fallen short.

This afternoon the battle moves to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the NFL Players Assn., where chief Gene Upshaw will be host of a closed-door meeting with a handful of former players and representatives from the league and NFL-related charities. The group will include NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has outlined plans for a coalition that would help former players in dire need.

Former New York Giants star Frank Gifford, 76, who helped found the union, will be at today's meeting. Gifford is glad all sides are finally sitting down.

"Something's not right here, and everyone -- the league, owners, former players and fans -- all need to get involved," he said.

A number of former players say it's about time.

"It's hard to say this without sounding like a jerk, but it's a slap in the face to retirees when there's $80 million for Pop Warner football, but not enough for people in dire need," said Brent Boyd, who was a guard for the Minnesota Vikings between 1980 and 1986 and ties his inability to hold down a job to having suffered so many concussions during his playing days.

Boyd received $5,000 from a charitable trust operated by the NFL Players Assn. several years ago when he was homeless and has said he is grateful. But the 50-year-old former UCLA star said the cash-rich sport must do more.

"Charity begins at home, right? But I guess the camera opportunities are not good for the league when they're having to deal with homeless, crippled ex-players."

That football's charitable giving practices are under attack is just another measure of the growing anger among retired gridiron stars, including Hall of Famers Herb Adderley, Mike Ditka and Sam Huff.

The meeting follows months of pitched rhetoric.

Early last month, for example, Upshaw, who became the NFLPA's executive director in 1983 and was reelected in March, fired back at one of those aging veterans, Joe DeLamielleure. A fellow Hall of Famer, DeLamielleure has been sharply critical of Upshaw over retiree benefits. That criticism prompted Upshaw to tell the Philadelphia Daily News last month: "A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me, you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... neck."

Within days of that comment, a House subcommittee hearing was called to look into the escalating battle.

Goodell, already dealing with cases of player misconduct, would not comment on Upshaw's threatening words but made it clear he wanted a solution. A few days before that House hearing, Goodell called for today's meeting and Upshaw later agreed to play host.

But it was in that hearing on Capitol Hill that Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) zeroed in on the heart of the matter, asking why only 3% of past and present NFL players receive disability payments even though "half of all players retire because of injury [and] 60% of players suffer a concussion."

Also expected to attend today's meeting are representatives from pro football's four main charities -- the NFLPA's Professional Athletes Foundation, the Hall of Fame's Enshrinee Assistance Foundation, the NFL Alumni Dire Need Charitable Trust and NFL Charities.

According to the most recent IRS records available, these four had cumulative assets of about $27 million in 2005. That year, the reports indicate, the groups distributed about $11 million.

But they are dwarfed by the NFL Youth Football Fund, a separate entity jointly funded by the league and union that promotes the game at the grassroots level. As of March 31, 2006, the fund reported $79.6 million in assets and, between 2001 and 2004, donated $87.5 million to youth and scholastic football programs nationwide.

Former players interviewed for this article generally lauded the league and union for supporting youth-oriented charities. But some also faulted football for failing to show more empathy for old-timers facing severe financial and medical problems.

And some are taking action.

Former Green Bay Packers star Jerry Kramer recently created the Gridiron Greats Assistance Foundation. Ditka operates his own charitable organization, and Bruce Laird, who spent most of his career with the Baltimore Colts, leads Fourth & Goal, a nonprofit that assists needy NFL retirees.

Laird, who was not invited, doubts that today's meeting will lead to substantive change.

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