Parrish Tackles NFLPA Head-On Seeking Better Pensions for Retirees

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

GAINESVILLE, Fla . -- There are days when Bernie Parrish wonders why he has done this to himself. He is 71 years old, with a stent in his heart and cancer, that for now has been controlled, in his prostate. When he retired from his second career of hotel construction, he thought it was to a life of golf with his wife.

Instead his house here is filled with the incessant ringing of telephones, endless talks with former NFL players and constant lawyer visits -- all for a fight he didn't need but couldn't let go.

In the 1960s, Parrish was one of the men who strengthened the NFL Players Association with dreams of making it the most powerful union in sports. But the union, he is convinced, never became the iron fist in the owners' collective jaw, instead opting for labor peace as opposed to hostile lockouts.

And last year when he saw a quote from the NFLPA's current executive director, Gene Upshaw, in the Charlotte Observer saying, "The bottom line is I don't work for [the retired players]; they don't hire me and they can't fire me," Parrish was outraged. Mostly because he believed the union was supposed to represent all of its players.

Not long after, the former defensive back attended a reunion of the old Cleveland Browns, his team for eight seasons, and out spilled stories of players who could barely walk and were in wheelchairs, broken they said from the years of tackling and being tackled. More alarming were the endless tales of players whose pensions were so paltry they could barely live off the money. And soon players were cornering him, saying he had to do something. They said he was the one they trusted to find out why.

After that, he couldn't say no.

"Nobody did anything for 20 years," he said Friday evening as he sat in the football stadium at the University of Florida, trying to find a break from the ceaseless phone calls at home. "I ignored it. I didn't pay attention to it. I was building hotels; it was the farthest thing from my mind. I had little interest in what was going on with football. But I love these guys; I can't turn my back on them."

Despite arms still thick from his playing days, Parrish is not an imposing man. He wears large glasses and has a gentle voice. He is angered by the NFLPA but does not fly into rages. He is the closest thing to a leader that retired players have. Mike Ditka might twist his face into a scowl and grumble about the plight of retired players on television, but it is Parrish who has quietly sifted through hundreds of pages of the pension and retirement plans and come to the conclusion that Upshaw has kept them from millions of dollars they are owed. He believes this has happened because Upshaw has allowed a complicated system that keeps players from getting proper disability payments despite evidence of countless debilitating injuries, and the union -- more importantly its arm, Players Inc. -- did not pay thousands of dollars in royalties they have earned. The NFLPA maintains that it does not direct the retirement plan.

Parrish points to baseball, where the annual benefit for a retired player, he said, is $36,700 as compared with the NFL's $12,165. Because neither sport paid well years ago, he sees the divide clearly coming in the way the unions have structured themselves in the past four decades and the way money has been distributed. For instance the NFLPA spent $5.6 million on legal fees in 2003 and 2004, according to records Parrish has obtained, most of this to the Washington, D.C., law firm that defends the pension plan. Baseball's union spent $309,726 in that same time.

When asked what the retired players want, Parrish didn't hesitate: "We want to match baseball's pension plan; that would be a good start."

Believing there are unaccounted revenues lurking around the NFLPA, Parrish and another former player, Herb Adderley, filed a class action lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco claiming that Players Inc. has denied them tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees since 1994. Last week, a trial date was set for Sept. 22, 2008, which means for the next several months, the NFLPA will be required to turn over hundreds of pages of documents and accountings. If the union is hiding something from them, chances are it will be discovered.

"Bernie's smarter than all of us," says former Redskins star Sam Huff, now a team broadcaster. "With all those figures he comes up with, he should be a lawyer."

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