As is more often than not the case in the shallow realm of sports journalism, the best and most important stories get the least notice. Which may account for why the runaway epidemic of performance-enhancing drug abuse in baseball got blithely ignored for roughly 15 years.
So it is that every beat writer in the game as well as the hotshots who have the unregulated license to fulminate in their columns are trying to play catch-up. Getting to the bottom of this travesty is, of course, impossible. But if the Mitchell Commission gives the knights half an opening, pack-media’s pursuit of scapegoats is going to get ugly. Which is why if I were Jason Giambi I’d be plenty worried.
But this dissertation is not about steroids. Or the scandal of rampant cheating. Or the duplicity of the baseball commissioner who raised denial to an art form back in the ’90s when the new breed of artificially bloated sluggers were pumping baseball’s turnstiles with their bogus assault on the record book. It’s not even about the hypocrisies of the sports media, which is full of escapists who’d rather revel in the superficialities of wins and losses than have to deal with a genuine news story.
It’s about an injustice so cheap and raw that it borders on the disgusting. Moreover, it’s an easy story to document and share. All it takes is a willingness to go after the acknowledged national pastime, professional football, and America’s most sacred cow, the National Football League.
Don’t expect many takers. The free pass the NFL gets from the entrenched jock media is properly legend.
A performance-enhancing drug problem in a league flushed with 330-pound Herculeans who seemed to have come from a different planet? Don’t be ridiculous!
An ethics and behavior problem in a league that includes a franchise that had a dozen players socked with felony charges in a single calendar year? Surely you jest!
The NFL can get away with whatever it pleases. Nothing blemishes its pristine image. There’s one standard for football; another for all the other games under the sun.
But this time it may not wash because the attack is coming from within. It is the family itself that’s rebelling.
It is, of course, all about money. Naturally! The contemporary game is fabulously successful. In the NFL you can’t possibly be so inept, backward, or feeble as to fail to reap huge profits in spite of yourself. For proof, check out such wayward franchises as the Arizona Cardinals who, if they played baseball, would have long ago gone the way of the St. Louis Browns.
NFL franchises are licenses to mine gold. But it’s the owners who reap the monumental profits. The players do well. The stars do supremely well. No one is hurting. But the margin of profit enjoyed by NFL owners is immensely greater than what their lodge brothers in the other major games -- baseball, basketball and hockey -- can grab. The fabled ‘‘Robber Barons’’ of precious American lore never had it so good.
Awash in billions of bucks of annual profit, no one associated with such a fabulous enterprise ought to have to grovel. But that is decidedly the state of the men who made this game the paragon of the sporting industry that it’s become. We speak of those who played the game before 1982 when the NFL -- after its last serious labor dispute -- made the jump from superb profit margins to levels that are fairly ridiculous. Save for the stray stars, salaries were not huge in their time. Now their pensions are far and away the most meager in the industry.
The formula is complicated and it varies according to when you begin to draw your pension, but for the men who played before 1982 the most they can receive is $200 per month per year of service while the benefits for those who retired before 1965 and are now most in need are only half as much. NFL careers -- especially in the old days -- were notoriously short compared with life spans in the other games. The average NFL vet had about a five-year career. That means for those who retired before ’82, the annual pension is 12 grand. That’s a modest supplement to one’s social security earnings, perhaps, but it’s hardly a windfall in an industry that’s supposed to be mighty upscale. Unfortunately, many old-timers opted for modest early retirement packages that unfortunately locked them into permanent payoffs that are mere pittances. They got little guidance.
More to the point, the issue in pro football is exacerbated by the “pain and suffering” factor. For generations, NFL warriors were willing to “suck it up” (in the parlance of their game) long after they’d play their last down. It was the “manly” thing to do. No more!
The old warriors are now bellowing long and hard about the chronic injuries they must now endure because of the “play in pain” ethos of their times; and the early Alzheimer’s haunting them which they blame on concussions that weren’t diagnosed when they played; and the monumental medical costs they face which don’t qualify for coverage under many insurance plans. It’s a bloody mess. Levels of anger are rising.
Every week seemingly brings new tales of woe. Typical is the case reported recently in the Tampa Tribune of Herb Adderley, the wonderful Hall of Fame cornerback of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay dynasty in the ’60s. Now destitute, Adderley draws a monthly pension of $176.85 and that’s after a recent boost of 50 bucks a month. Doubtless Adderley is tempted to tell them they can keep their lousy $2,122.20 per year. But he’s desperate. It was Adderley’s plight that prompted his old Packer pal Jerry Kramer -- the brainy guard who led Lombardi’s power sweeps -- to observe: ‘‘My teammates are having some very difficult times. We have a lot of guys struggling.’’ The great Kramer -- for the record -- has a monthly pension of a lofty $358.
Kramer leads a group of old warriors who are trying to bully the NFL Players Association and the owners into seriously tackling the issue at long last. Mike Ditka, Council Rudolph, Joe DeLamielleure and Herm Edwards are among his principle cohorts. At this year’s week’s Super Bowl, they announced the formation of an emergency welfare program for down and out old-timers called, ‘‘Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.’’ That a bunch of legends of the game would have to take matters into their own hands ought to be enough to embarrass the NFL’s rapacious moguls into some sort of action, you would hope. But not yet.
In the Tribune’s weighty treatment of the issue, Rudolph is quoted as noting: ‘‘Some of our guys are getting $200 a month while retired baseball players are getting $40,000 a year.’’ Actually, it is only retired baseball players at the lower end of the scale who get 40 grand. At the upper end, contemporary retirees annually qualify for $180,000. Baseball’s plan makes a mockery of football’s, and modern ballplayers qualify after only 43 days of MLB service. All the other plans make the NFL version look ludicrous. Even the downtrodden, much abused, NHL is markedly superior and the hockey players only have to play a couple of years to qualify.
None of the plans, however, do justice to the old-timers who never reaped the fabulous rewards now routine in all the games. When the glorious George Mikan -- proclaimed in his time as “the Babe Ruth of Basketball” -- died recently, it was reported he was barely surviving on an annual pension of $17 grand and doing so without complaint although he had much to complain about.
That’s meal money for the hotshots of today’s NBA. They ought to be ashamed. That is, if they have any shame.