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Goodell, Upshaw meet with retirees

New assistance program is set up to help former NFL players with critical health, financial issues.

July 25, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and players union chief Gene Upshaw sat side by side Tuesday and detailed a planned coalition that will try to ease suffering among former athletes who have fallen on hard times.

Their joint appearance at the NFL Players Assn. headquarters here was an attempt to calm what has been an escalating battle of words.

"The most important thing about what is taking place today is this group of retired players and the players' union understands the plight of retired players and we want to work as a single voice, a single group, to improve the plight of retired players," Upshaw said. "We care about them."

His comments followed a three-hour closed-door meeting that brought together pro football's leadership, representatives from the league's four main charities and 11 former players, including Jack Kemp, Jerry Kramer, Merlin Olsen, Steve Largent and Frank Gifford.

As part of the plan announced Tuesday, a new assistance program will be created that will address several critical health and financial issues, including -- in the longer term -- some sort of assisted living help. The program will draw an unspecified amount of funding from the league, the union and charities affiliated with professional football.

All of this comes amid a growing wave of protest from former football stars who allege that the pension and disability programs for older NFL retirees are broken and that the league and the players union are not doing enough.

But Goodell was pleased all sides finally had come together.

"I think it was a very productive afternoon," he said. "I think we had all the stakeholders there. We had people who obviously had taken issue with what's been done for the retired players."

The coalition will focus on a handful of broad concerns: an orthopedics program for retirees with knee, hip and shoulder problems; a more-stringent cardiovascular screening system to alert retirees to potential problems; a heftier dire needs fund for retirees facing financial difficulty and, eventually, making assisted living care available to players with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

The coalition also plans to continue studying ways to improve pension and medical disability programs offered to NFL retirees.

But those at the meeting acknowledged that big questions remain.

For example, it still must be determined how many former players are in need of medical care and financial assistance and what the price tag will be for such a broad relief effort.

And, while the 11 former players in attendance Tuesday voiced unanimous support for the coalition, it was uncertain how some of the most vocal critics would respond since none were invited.

For example, such former players as Joe DeLamielleure and Bernie Parrish, whose stinging comments helped take the battle public, were not there, prompting one former player to suspect that the coalition "is only going to be so much more window dressing."

Kramer, a former Green Bay Packers lineman who formed Gridiron Greats Assistance Foundation to help NFL retirees in need, acknowledged some of the foundation's board members had cautioned him against attending Tuesday's meeting.

Kramer, though, left the meeting in an upbeat mood.

"Going in, I thought we were going to get snowballed, steamrolled, sandbagged and a bunch of other different things," Kramer said after the news conference. "I'm very encouraged. I think we have a ways to go because I don't think we could solve all of the problems in one fell swoop, in one afternoon meeting."

During the meeting, Olsen, a former Los Angeles Ram, bluntly asked Upshaw whether the coalition really would do what was needed to assist retired players in need.

Kramer said that Olsen cautioned Upshaw against rolling out "a dog-and-pony show."

After the meeting, Olsen said he was confident that the league and union were serious about helping aging former players.

Upshaw said it was time to put aside bickering and hard feelings: "We are now in position as a group to move forward as one in this alliance."

Kemp, president of the American Football League Players Union during the 1960s, said the coalition is "a tremendous step in the right direction. There's more that has to be done, and we don't want any current or retired player to think that we've solved all the problems today."

Goodell, when asked whether the coalition was forged in response to the public frustration being registered by retired players, said it was driven by "our continued focus on always doing things better."

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greg.johnson@latimes.com

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