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."

Planting the Seeds

If Parrish has a mentor, it is Billy Howton, a former Browns teammate who was an NFLPA president in the early 1960s.

"He had the foresight in organizing the players," Parrish said.

At the time the players' association was somewhat controlled by the owners, who tried to handpick player representatives. Howton railed against this, leading a fight for what now seems like simple things, such as being paid for exhibition games.

"He was not cut from the mold of being an owner's man," Parrish said.

Parrish took this example into his fight with the league's owners in the mid- to late 1960s. Parrish was enthralled with baseball's labor leader, Marvin Miller. He wanted to model the NFLPA after Miller's aggressive baseball union and even met with Miller to see how he could achieve that. At one point he got together with Miller in hopes of creating an association that would represent all players.

They had a meeting in Miller's office. Joining Parrish were Oscar Robertson from the NBA, Bobby Orr representing the NHL and Jack Kemp from the American Football League. The plan eventually fell apart. But it spoke to the aspirations Parrish had for his union.

Already the complaints of the retired players, which heated up at the Super Bowl, have had an impact. Upshaw has vigorously defended the union's dedication to retired players and has said he can't give retired players the same pension as current players because it would take $1 billion to do so. Parrish scoffs when he hears the NFLPA talk about the disability plan paying $20 million to 284 retirees, saying the payouts in any other industry would be much larger. The NFL, also, has put together programs to help players in need and with dementia.

Upshaw recently told the Philadelphia Daily News that he is going to work with Commissioner Roger Goodell to eliminate the "red tape" that keeps retirees from getting their disability payments. Parrish shook his head and pointed to the $5.6 million paid in legal fees from 2003 and 2004 as evidence the NFLPA is helping to fund that very red tape.

NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis said Parrish is guessing as to where the union's fees are going. He added that large sums of money have been used to defend lawsuits, including the current one Parrish has against Players Inc.

"Most guys who would like to make change and improve a system you would think would want to sit down with that group and have a dialogue," Francis said, adding that Parrish has not met with the union leader since a 2006 conference call.

The Fight Continues

A few weeks ago, Parrish took a call from a congressional subcommittee that has planned a June 26 hearing on the plight of retired players. At first Parrish was overjoyed when the committee people talked about the retirement and pension plans. He had visions of Goodell and Upshaw squirming nervously under the lights much the way Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig sizzled under congressional scrutiny on steroids a few years ago.

But then word on the subcommittee was that Goodell and Upshaw would not be attending, that there were no plans to subpoena anyone. They told him he would not be able to testify because he has litigation pending against the NFLPA. Then they said Goodell and Upshaw are probably not coming.

Parrish felt deflated.

The subcommittee, he worried, isn't interested in grilling Upshaw on the pension and disability problems.

"They just want to hear someone say 'it's bad, it's bad, it's bad,' " Parrish said.

Parrish wondered if he should continue to support the hearings. Last week, he cancelled several trips to Washington during which he was going to brief the congressmen's staffs on the particulars of the pension plan and the plight of retired players and even thought about pulling out altogether. He said he was sure Ditka, who is one of the retired players invited to speak, would decline the invitation if he asked him to. So far Parrish has not asked and figures he probably won't because there is too much to be gained.

He sighed and looked down on the field where 50 years ago he was a star for the Florida Gators.

His peaceful retirement seems to be drifting away.

"He doesn't need this fight; he's got plenty of money," Huff said recently. "But the guys who have been competitors; they're for what's right."

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