NFL legacy fund leaves some former players’ widows caught in middle of league, union


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith are trying to figure out how best to use money from the NFL Legacy Fund to give pentions to the widows of former players. (Jason Miller/GETTY IMAGES)
June 2, 2012

When NFL owners and players were at the bargaining table last summer, among the contentious issues being negotiated were enhancing the benefits for former players. As the two sides hammered out details to the new collective bargaining agreement, they agreed to create a legacy fund, a pool of about $620 million that was intended to boost the pensions of the 4,700 players who left the game before 1993.

But unaddressed in the agreement were the 320 widows whose husbands were vested prior to 1993 but died before the CBA was reached last August. For the past 10 months, these women have been lobbying for inclusion.

“Supposedly no one knew it would fall out like this,” said Sylvia Mackey, whose husband, John Mackey, the Baltimore Colts’ Hall of Famer, died last July. “How they didn’t know, I have no idea.”

To extend the fund’s benefits to this group of widows, the NFL and the NFL Players Association would need to contribute about $14 million more. The two sides said they’re still working toward a solution, but so far the widows have received nothing more than progress reports that barely hint at progress.

“It’s big business,” said Sandra Unitas, whose late husband, Johnny Unitas, was one of the game’s most recognizable icons, “and we little guys seem to get shut out.”

The NFL’s owners met last week in Atlanta and agreed to start cutting checks that would pay the widows a portion of the money they’d be due.

“While those discussions have been inconclusive, the ownership decided it would go ahead on its own and provide the benefit to the widows and pay the same share for doing so that we are paying for the legacy fund,” said Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president.

That means the NFL soon will pay 51 percent of the money owed and also include retroactive benefit money dating from August, when the CBA was struck.

“We hope the union will come along and fund the balance of it,” Pash said, “but at least [the widows] won’t be sitting around getting nothing and looking for this seemingly inconclusive dicker to go on and on.”

The matter isn’t that simple, though. The NFLPA takes issue with the source of the NFL’s 51 percent, which would come from money generated by player fines. That means NFL players would indirectly be footing the entire bill, said Nolan Harrison, the NFLPA’s senior director of former player services, and owners would not have to open their wallets.

“It’s not us delaying it,” Harrison said. “We’ve been working very hard on this end of it, trying to figure out a resolution. For them to come back and want to spend player money instead of their own, that’s not a solution.”

The amount each widow would receive varies and is based on years of service. In addition to their husbands’ regular pensions, widows whose husbands played five to 10 years could receive $600 to $1,250 or more per month.

The widows don’t understand why they’ve received nothing while nearly 10 months have passed. The NFL said it intends to cut checks soon, but even if that happens, there’s no timeline on when they’ll see the remaining 49 percent.

“You’re not talking about large numbers here,” Unitas said. “To think this group of players are the ones who brought this game around. They’re the ones who brought the game onto TV, built it into what it is today. Why in the world with the salaries that players make today would they have a problem pitching in 49 percent?”

The players’ association has explained to the widows that this is a new benefit and companies don’t typically extend new benefits to former employees. Still, the union has vowed to get it resolved and asked for patience. Union leaders said they’re still in discussions with the league, though those reassurances haven’t offered comfort to some.

“The more I’ve dug into it, the more frustrating it gets,” Walker Gillette said. “It seems like you hear something one day, and the next day something different.”

Gillette’s mother, Peggy, is 88 years old. His father, Jim Gillette, played in the NFL from 1940 to ’48 and died 22 years ago.

“I think that’s great, if something is finally getting done,” said Walker Gillette, who also played in the NFL, from 1970 to ’76. “Something needed to be done.”

Sylvia Mackey attended Super Bowl festivities in Indianapolis this year and raised her hand at the news conference of NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith. “What did we do wrong?” she asked.

In response, Smith defended the union and said the players pushed for the legacy fund in the first place.

“The people who fought for that benefit would never try to purposely exclude anyone,” Smith said. “We created a new benefit, and we are proud of it.”

In the four months that followed, Mackey had a difficult time getting answers. She works as a flight attendant and said the legacy fund money would be helpful. Both the NFLPA and the league office kept saying they were working to right a wrong, and Commissioner Roger Goodell personally called her to discuss the matter.

“The fight over it is just embarrassing,” Mackey said. “It’s shameful. It’s dragging us widows through the mud.”

Many retired players have butted heads with union leadership for years over benefits and resources extended to the game’s former athletes. A lawsuit filed by former players against the union was thrown out Friday.

“No jury could reasonably find that the active players did not do better by the retired players in the 2011 CBA,” U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson said in her ruling.

The NFLPA points to significant gains in the most recent collective bargaining agreement and said the matter with the widows will be resolved. The question is: Where does the money come from?

“I’m confident that it will get done,” Harrison said. “I’ve expressed that to Sylvia, as well as some of the other widows and survivors. We understand that this is an issue that has to get fixed. But we need to make sure we do it the right way.”

Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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