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Retiree group derides NFL alliance plan

Gridiron Greats distances itself from founder Jerry Kramer, who had expressed 'cautious optimism' after meeting.

July 28, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The increasingly bitter feud over NFL retiree benefits for aging NFL veterans took an unexpected turn on Friday when a nonprofit group that has been helping down-on-their-luck retirees distanced itself from its founder.

The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund that former Green Bay Packers star Jerry Kramer created in February issued a news release that took issue with Kramer's apparent willingness to work with the NFL and NFL Players Assn. on a proposed alliance that would deliver medical and financial assistance where needed.

The Gridiron Greats board of directors, which includes Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Joe DeLamielleure, Gale Sayers and Harry Carson, maintained that Kramer attended Tuesday's NFLPA-hosted meeting in Washington, D.C. as "an individual, and not as a representative of the Gridiron Greats Assistant Fund." Board members also dismissed the alliance that was made public after Tuesday's closed-door meeting as a public relations ploy, and described its promise of assistance to retirees with financial and medical problems as "more smoke and mirrors."

Gridiron Greats' harsh language was in contrast to public statements from Kramer and 10 other former NFL players who joined NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw on Tuesday to begin hammering out what the proposed alliance would do and how it will be funded.

Kramer on Tuesday expressed "cautious optimism" that the alliance would deliver what it had promised. Goodell and Upshaw trumpeted the support from such retired players as Frank Gifford, Jack Kemp and Merlin Olsen, and claimed to have strong support from across the NFL retiree community.

"For Goodell and Upshaw to say that they had all the major players in the room is as bogus as hell," said board member Tom Nowatzke, a running back for the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Colts during the 1960s and 1970s. "Nothing came out of [Tuesday's] meeting that was concrete. They didn't even decide when they're going to meet again."

"The point of our organization is seeking major changes, in pensions and medical disability," he said. "This meeting wasn't about any of that."

Ditka, an outspoken critic of the league and union when it comes to retiree issues, was quoted in the news release as saying that Tuesday's meeting "had no substance" and that Goodell and Upshaw are "not interested in conducting meetings with substance that will bring about the major changes that are needed."

Kramer said Friday afternoon that he had not yet seen the release, and had not yet had time to even brief board members on Tuesday's developments.

"I think it was ill-advised and uniformed ... to issue a press release without first talking to me," said Kramer, who is not a board member.

Though the Gridiron Greats' board is at odds with Kramer, the news release did note that the organization was in sync with Bernie Parrish and Bruce Laird, two former players who lead organizations that also are critical of the alliance. Parrish said in an interview that the league and union objective is "to delay, deny and hope that we die."

The NFL, which is preparing for its Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony on Aug. 4 in Canton, Ohio, dismissed Gridiron Greats' board action.

"We are not interested in bickering," said league spokesman Greg Aiello. "We are moving forward with constructive initiatives backed by millions of dollars. We are interested in working together to get things accomplished for retired players with medical needs."

Aiello also said that Goodell had asked Carson for names of former players to invite to Tuesday's meeting. Carson, Aiello said, subsequently wrote a letter to the commissioner saying, "sorry I forgot to get back to you."

Aiello said that the league "invited the Gridiron Greats to join the alliance through Jerry Kramer." Carson, who was traveling on Friday night, was not available to comment.

NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis said Friday that "it's very sad that Mr. Ditka and his colleagues at the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund are so consumed with anger that they can't see the need to focus on working together to truly help retired players with real problems.

"Rather than sending out press release tirades, including criticizing their own founder ... we would constructively suggest they work with us at the players' association on the very problem they are most concerned about," Francis said. "Let's stop the name calling and get to work."

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greg.johnson@latimes.com

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