The league has fallen embarrassingly short in addressing the football-related medical problems many players face years after retirement. The NFL has become professional sports’ biggest moneymaker, and owners should do whatever is necessary to provide players and former players with the best medical care later in life. For the NFL, substantially increasing its financial commitment for the health care of retirees — and making it easier for former players to receive benefits — is the right thing to do. And in the long run, it would also make good business sense.
As the series has demonstrated, there’s no longer any question about the debilitating long-term effects of playing in the NFL. Statistics show that one in four retirees will need joint replacement. Former players suffer arthritis at five times the rate of their peers. They’re four times as likely to suffer neurodegenerative diseases — the most alarming health consequences of the game — such as Alzheimer’s or ALS.
Although symptoms of many health problems may not develop for at least a decade after the end of an NFL career, the league’s health insurance lasts for just five years after retirement. Players who are in the NFL fewer than three seasons do not qualify for post-career insurance. The average NFL player is out of the league after just 3.9 seasons, according to the NFL Players Association. A wide gap must be bridged.
The NFL has tried, its leaders say. Owners have funded programs, created in collective bargaining with the players’ union, that help retirees with medical expenses. NFL representatives are quick to point out that many of the league’s benefits extend long after players have left the game. When compared to other businesses, the league boasts, its benefits are extremely generous.
Problem is, the NFL is unlike any other business. In most lines of work, employees don’t face the threat of severe bodily harm at the office. Each time an NFL player steps on the field, he knows a potential career-ending injury could occur on any play. Players realize they may face a lifetime of health problems from doing their jobs.
And if benefits don’t meet the needs of those who have them or are too difficult to access, what are they worth?
The NFL’s disability board often denies workers’ compensation claims at a rate as high as almost 60 percent. Teams regularly oppose claims filed by former players. The NFL insists it doesn’t have a policy of denying claims. Regardless, the league definitely is good at it.
Every industry attempts to limit exposure to medical liability, which can be a major drain on profits. There’s nothing wrong with owners protecting their bottom line. But the NFL’s bottom line is so strong (about $9.5 billion in annual revenue), it is shameful owners haven’t stepped up more in support of retirees.
Last year, more than 1,300 players received payments totaling $75 million from the NFL Disability Plan. About $23 million has been approved to assist 233 NFL alumni with brain diseases. That’s a sizable financial commitment. But for a league with approximately 18,000 alumni who contributed to the growth of the league in ways large and small, owners have to go deeper into their pockets.
Also, if retirees can’t pay their medical bills and the NFL won’t take care of its own, many former players will turn to the government in an effort to ease their pain. The burden will fall on taxpayers through Social Security disability and Medicare.
Taxpayers shouldn’t get stuck with the bill because billionaire owners would rather buy yachts than pay for a former backup linebacker to have knee-replacement surgery. If owners maintain the current inadequate system and medical care of alumni falls mostly on taxpayers in future generations, the NFL’s immense popularity could take a major hit. That’s not something owners should risk.
Some probably are wondering, “What about the athletes’ responsibility?” No one is forced to play in the NFL. So much information is out there about the health risks associated with the game, everyone knows the deal. Still, most college football players aspire to graduate to the NFL in hopes of achieving the type of fortune and fame relatively few attain. Without them, though, there is no NFL.
The series shined a light on the worst aspects of football. In doing so, it exposed the NFL for how it treats players during their careers and afterward. On the eve of another season, that’s nothing to be excited about.
For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.