Post Magazine: The Pain Game
Monday, February 4, 2008; 12:00 PM
Long after winning his Super Bowl ring, Dave Pear says his life is now a "torture chamber" of pain. Can he and other injured retirees force the NFL to rethink its financial responsibilities to the generations that helped build the league?
Staff writer Michael Leahy, whose story about retired NFL players enduring years of physical suffering and financial struggle ran in this week's issue of
Michael Leahy: Thanks for joining us to chat about the story. Before we begin, I want to thank all those interviewees who participated in this story. Dave Pear and his family set aside four days for me to observe their lives. The Mackey family was similarly gracious. Parties on both sides of the issue, from retiree activist Bruce Laird to players union Executive Director Gene Upshaw, made themselves available for lengthy interviews. I see we have a lot of questions, so let's get started.
Oxford, Miss: Wonderful story, finely written. Two brief questions, is Pear out of legal recourse options given his opt out for pension? Also, given that our country is at a turning point on health coverage, might his medical needs be covered with a change in administration and/or perhaps universal health coverage? It will be a long time coming, even longer for Pear and his family and others in similar situations. Thanks for sharing the other side of football, beyond the glory. This was such a memorable story.
Michael Leahy: Thank you the kind comment and the questions. Re whether he is out of legal options for pursuing a disability claim with the NFL: I think Lanny Davis made an interesting point on this subject. Davis, who is at once a highly skilled attorney and crisis management specialist, observed that, given the Social Security Administration has judged Pear to be disabled and is awarding him about $2,000 a month, the league's retirement board could perhaps reconsider its ruling against Pear and give him the disability benefit, notwithstanding Pear's acceptance of the pension. In Davis's view, it "could be a moral claim..." or "a matter of equity." So, in short, I think anything is possible in this regard. Davis wasn't pledging to see that the change was made, simply voicing his opinion that he saw it as a viable possibility. Upshaw disagreed with this view, but, again, given the volatility of this issue, anything seems possible in the months and years to come.
Arlington, VA: This was the greatest story I've ever read on this subject, a gripping searing tale. My heart goes out to Dave and Heidi Pear. You mentioned Pear's disinclination to watch much football. Does he never attend games? If he does go, what is that experience like for him?
Michael Leahy: Thank you for the nice words. Pear seldom watches football. He told me that, to the best of his recollection, the last time he attended a football game was sometime back at the Seattle Kingdome, at the invitation of a friend. He remembers having very nice seats, but that he left sometime in second half. He just didn't enjoy the experience much, the sights and sounds of the game rekindling memories that he would prefer to erase, actually.
He leads a quiet life. Pear, Heidi and their children are devout Jehovah's Witnesses, and their Sundays generally don't include the watching of televised football. He watched with me only because I urged him to do it, explaining that I wanted to get his perspective on today's game and how it compares to football in his era. He graciously watched, the action on the TV igniting memories of his old days, which proved to be important to the story.
I'm not even a football fan...: and this story touched me. It's like they just throw them away once they are no longer useful. Have there been changes/improvements in the uniforms/padding to help cut down on some of the injuries?
Michael Leahy: Thank you. The short answer is yes, equipment is considerably superior today. People on both sides of the retiree issue acknowledge that.
Santa Fe, NM: Michael,
What is it going to take to fix this? The independent efforts by Ditka and the former players is laudible but what does sweeping change look like?
Michael Leahy: Thank you for reading the story and your question. Retiree activists believe that any meaningful reform must include giving the representatives of retired players a seat (or seats) at the table when the league and the active players are negotiating revenue-sharing agreements, or retooling salary and benefit agreements. As I say in the story, the current revenue-sharing agreement, which dictates that 60 percent of league revenues will go to the active players -- out of whose share will come all benefit payments for the retired players -- leaves the union and Upshaw on the horns of a dilemma: Any benefit payments for the retired players necessarily come out of the active players' 60 percent share. That presents an inevitable conflict of interest for the players union, argue the retiree activists. So the solution probably starts there, assert the activists: provide some seats on a bargaining council to the retirees.
reno, nv: I am Brent Boyd, disabled former NFL player. (www.dignityafterfootball.org) I testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee in June and helped schedule and testified at the Senate Commerce hearing on Sept 18. Just last Thursday, Senate LEADER Harry Reid took my fight to the Senate floor in a speech honoring me and discussing the plight of ALL retired NFL players.
I want to thank you for your courage in writing your article. Too many reporters and editors know what you know but are too timid to print the story; and don't want to risk losing access to locker rooms or lavish super bowl parties.
This is is avery serious issue that does not effect today's millionaire players, as fans compare us to, but it effects the guys who built the game in the 1950's, 60's, 70's, and 80's..who played for single thousands or tens of thousands...who played on concrete covered by a thin layer of plastic fake grass looking material. Many injuries, including concussions, were not caused by man to man contact, but merely hitting the ground as guinea pigs for Astroturf. To save the billionaire owners money on lawnmowers.
we have been asking Congress to get the NFL/NFLPA to open their books, something no courts have been able to do with their army of attorneys.
We seek a GAO accounting of their activities, to get the truth once and for all.
Last week, Denver owner Pat bowlen may have helped us do just that, by claiming "he was going bankrupt", after hearing testimony in 2 congressional hearings of great profits.
I hope the Post follows thru on that aspect.
The NFL is appeasing the media and some in congress with fake announcements every once in a while...88 plan...free surgeries...prescription plan..
problem is, NO ONE actually gets these benefits.
--88 plan - Ask Sharon and Wayne Hwakins of Reno. Wayne, an original Raider and 11 year plAYER, HAS DEMENTIA AND WAS AMONG FIRST TO BE APPROVED FOR 88 PLAN..TO DATE, THEY HAVE RECEIVED $125
--Free surgeries- anther ruse---instead of simply giving us our rightful monthly payments, so we can take care of ourselves, we must travel to certain cities. IF we meet certain financial conditions.
what good is a hip replacement if you are living under a bridge???where will you recuperate?
--prescription plan --- heralded as a "special plan" available only to former NFL players, because we are "special", and the NFL went out of their way to negotiate this complex plan...
except the legendary Jon Arnett is an expert in this area, and tells us the SAME benefits are avaialalbe to any American simply by walking into Costco or Wal-Mart (see www.dignityafterfootball.org)
my story has been told, a story of fraud and corruption in being denied my benefits..even after not one, but the first TWO NFL doctors approved my claim..this led to homelessness as a single dad and great hardship to this very day..all unnecessary, all at the hands of corrupt greedy men.
My disability is concussions...they sent me to their third doctor, who didn't bother to look at a brain scan or MRI, and looked instead into his crystal ball and proclaimed I had no concussion damage. He wrote, when paid by NFL, that my symptoms of depressions, vertig, fatige,and headaches COULD NOT be caused by concussions.
problem is, we later found an independent medical research article written by same doctor before he saw me, for review by peers and NOT paid by NFL..in 1st paragraph, he says THE MOST COMMON SYMPTOMS of post-concussion are depression, dizziness, fatigue, and headaches..
where was Upshaw?
He was hiring Lanny Davis to attack me! You heard of the Truth Squad..that was about me, yours truly...I am Lanny Davis' enemy #1? and current players are paying his bill..
thanks again for uncovering this madness, it will take more of your reporting and follow thru to bring justice to this situation.
Sen Reid promised more hearings, the House Judiciary is aggressively pursuing, so I will see you in DC soon.
Gratefully, Brent Boyd
Michael Leahy: We've just received this statement from Mr. Boyd, which we'll post in the interest of letting different groups make their case. If anyone from the players union or from the League wishes to reply to Mr. Boyd during the chat, we will be glad to post such a rebuttal as well.
Washington, D.C.: What about today's players? It seems to me that nothing much can be done to prevent the catastrophic injuries and concussions. It's a rough game. As a fan, I'm feeling more guilty about watching.
Michael Leahy: Well, this is such a good question. While watching games with Pear, I asked him, "Hey, what would you think about widening the football field to something like the Canadian League's dimensions? Wouldn't that give people more room to run and diminish the frequency and severity of hits?"
And Pear smiled and said, Sure, you could do that, but that the game would "no longer be football," or at least "not football as Americans know it." He didn't want to see such changes. Moreover, he said, there is really very little that can be done in the end to take the violence out of football. The violence is inescapable, he emphasized. It makes more sense, he argued, simply to recognize the inherent violence in the game, accept the likelihood of catastrophic injuries, and devise a better disability system that doesn't treat players like disposable commodities. Thanks for the excellent question.
Thanks for your moving and informative article. I have a lot of sympathy for the players you profiled, but have to wonder whether the woefully inadequate benefits they get from the NFL are still a hundredfold better that what an ordinary laborer (miner, nurse, stevedore) would get for a work-related disability. Additionally NFL players make (and made) enormous salaries over their (admittedly short) careers. Although it doesn't seem like so much now, Mr. Pear's salary was a princely sum for the late 70's and early 80's.
Michael Leahy: Sure, but Pear was out of the game before he turned 28- years-old and has suffered from what doctors characterize as unremitting pain and declining cognitive abilities ever since. The most he ever made in a season was $115,000, which wasn't going to last long.
Reston, VA: Excellent article. This is more of an observation than a question...
The most powerful parts of the story were that the $6 billion empire are reluctant to take care of the people who helped build it, that people being paid $1.8 million think an $82,000 payout is excessive, and that the head of the players' union is more concerned about people calling him names than he is about helping people who genuinely need it.
As I was cheering my Giants on to victory last night, I found myself thinking that I was looking at the next batch of Pears as players absorbed crushing hit after crushing hit.
Perhaps Specter should focus more attention on this issue and less on which teams are cheating...
Michael Leahy: Just posting this comment. The reference at the end is to Senator Specter of Pennsylvania.
Baltimore, MD: Michael,
Were you a football fan before working on this article? And has the piece made it harder for you to watch the games?
Michael Leahy: Short answers: yes and yes.
But, re your second question, I think much of that would be mitigated for all kinds of people if they were persuaded that the league and union were more aggressively trying to remedy the problems chronicled here.
Revenue Sharing: It would seem logical to recalculate the retiree health care from the revenue sharing equation. Of course, these young players think they are immortal, and are apparently heartless. Make it 40%, (or less) and devote the 20%/difference to the health fund.
Michael Leahy: Other people have raised such a point, as to whether the allocation of money for pensions and disability payments ought to be framed up front. It's an interesting question.
Maui, Hawaii: Enjoyed the story. Would you say that this might impact younger players -- to take better care of themselves if they are injured...or to take particular care of their finances now that they have a glimpse of what could happen to them?
Thank you for your time.
Michael Leahy: Kyle Turley was in a minority among active players when he said that they need to pay more attention to the retirees' crusade, lest the current players find themselves in the same position down the road.
Alexandria, Va: What a terrific article. I've read of one study finding that 65% of former players suffer from permanent injuries. Did you run across any information on how many of those struggle with financial pressures as severe as Dave Pear's?
Michael Leahy: Numbers are elusive, and often suspect with this kind of story. But let me give you one set of numbers that is worth noting. The union acknowledges that, as of last fall, 428 retirees out of 1,052 applicants had been awarded disability payments from one of the retirement plan's programs. So, even by the union's numbers, only about 42 percent of claimants are seeing a benefit. The activist retirees insist that the number of disabled retirees from that group is much higher.
A number of people have asked how to get in touch with Dave Pear. Pear has told me that he will soon have his own website -- DavePear.com -- I suspect he'll have more to say on all these subjects down the road.
Anonymous, please: Your article has already had a good impact on one disabled NFL veteran, my cousin, a back-up NFL lineman for 8 years in the 1970's and 80's. Fortunately is better off than Mr. Pears, but he is on pretty strong pain medication and his mental state is at times somewhat precarious.
For us, the saddest part of your fine article was that Mr. Pears somehow blew through his wife's $500,000 inheritance. I know hindsight is 20/20, but was there no one around to see what was happening? While my cousin does not expect any such windfall, he is reasonably well off thanks to better investments and a professional wife. They have made an appointment with their financial planner for next week (they called him on Sat. after having read your article!) to set up safeguards to insure this doesn't happen to them. They are thinking along the lines that neither spouse can act alone w/out the approval of the other and without running it by the adviser, a trusted family friend and CPA, if the amount exceeds $5,000. This is not a bad idea for any couple so my wife and I are thinking along similar lines. Too bad no one was looking out for Mr. Pears to insure he did not blow his windfall.
Michael Leahy: I simply want to post this reader's comment.
Michael Leahy: As always, we have run far over our alloted time. Thanks for all the great questions and observations. Looking forward to chatting with you down the line.
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