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Coffeehouse philosophy, the realm of Nietzsche, teaches that that which does not kill you makes you stronger. Football, the playground of Nitschke, occasionally kills: Al Lucas of the Arena Football League’s Los Angeles Avengers died on television April 10 of what was presumed to be a spinal injury after making a tackle against the New York Dragons.
Such deaths are rare. But the Lucas story reminded me of a conversation I had with Mike Bass, the Redskins great, a couple of months ago. When I asked, for courtesy’s sake, how he was doing, Bass answered honestly.
The game, it turns out, does not leave all who survive it stronger.
“I’m hurting,” Bass said.
Bass then told me his body is essentially breaking down from the pounding he gave it during his playing days. A spinal injury that he suffered while making a tackle against the New York Giants near the end of the 1975 season keeps him in constant pain. He thinks that that hit, which led to surgery and the end of his career, is the reason he now stands three-quarters of an inch shorter than he did as a pro. And every morning, his knees remind him of the half-dozen or so surgeries to remove wayward cartilage.
But Bass, who turned 60 last month, always knew he was in the pain business during his 10 years in the NFL. And everybody who played alongside him during the days of football’s Greatest Generation has his own scars.
So Bass, on a related note, dwells instead on something the game has left him without: health insurance.
“I can’t get insurance,” said Bass, who is a self-employed consultant. “Nobody will give it to me. As soon as [insurance companies] find out I’m an ex-football player with all the pre-existing conditions that ex-football players have, no chance.”
Rather shockingly, neither the NFL nor the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) offers Bass or any other player from his era health-insurance coverage or provides any means for them to get such coverage.
It’s not easy to find out how many NFL veterans are now in Bass’ boat. Bass said the situation has reached “epidemic proportion” among his peers, but, citing respect for their privacy, declines to provide names of other veterans who are without health insurance.
Carl Francis, spokesman for the NFLPA, says the union has never looked into the prevalence of uninsured former players. The current collective-bargaining agreement, he says, requires CIGNA, the NFL’s official insurer, to offer players health insurance for five years after they leave the league.
“After that, hopefully, they would have somehow gotten into the work field to maybe establish their own benefits in another industry,” Francis says. “No other professional sports league does that much. As far as [guaranteeing] coverage beyond that, that’s something we’re looking into. The only thing we can do is research and set that as a goal.”
The news is full these days of reports of the money available to the NFL. The league’s new TV deals with Fox, CBS, and satellite providers will bring more than $11 billion over the next six years. This week, ESPN won the auction for Monday Night Football with a bid totaling nearly $9 billion for the next eight years, and NBC got back into the game for $3.6 billion for six years of Sunday-night games. So without counting one dollar of revenues from tickets, concessions, parking, or licensed goods, the teams will now split a pot of more than $3 billion a year.
There’s also plenty of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, of the bodily harm inflicted on those who play the game. The Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, a group based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has conducted several studies on the health of ex-NFL players. Its latest effort will detail some of the long-term damage of concussions. Essentially everybody who plays pro football has suffered at least one such injury.
“Our study is still in peer review, but there appears to be a link between recurrent concussions and the likelihood of being diagnosed with depression and the likelihood of developing cognitive impairment, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, research director of the center, which is partially funded by NFLPA. “Those with three or more concussions are the most susceptible.”
Guskiewicz says that through research, the center has already determined that NFL players do or will suffer from osteoarthritis at a higher-than-normal rate. “Surgery was different than it was today. A lot of the guys who had knee surgery back then, they’ve lost the buffer between the bone and the joints. It’s just bone on bone.”
So Guskiewicz isn’t surprised to hear that his study subjects can’t find health insurance.
“I would think these older guys have pre-existing conditions that would restrict them from what insurance they can get,” he says. “I do think the NFLPA has done a good job of getting the best policy they can get for [current players]. But the older guys from the other eras, the guys from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, they’re the guys who fought for a lot of what the newer retirees are now benefiting from. They played for this, to make the game as big as it is.”
And even if today’s players don’t fight for rights for their elders, Guskiewicz says, they should be looking out for themselves in the area of future health-insurance guarantees. If form holds, players picked in this weekend’s NFL draft will have pro careers that last a little over three years. The NFLPA’s current collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2007, but labor-management negotiations for the next deal are expected to open soon.
“The truth is, the newer guys might need [health-insurance guarantees] even more, because they’re going to have problems,” says Guskiewicz. “The strength coaches today are building players bigger, stronger, faster than ever. And the body-mass index today is exponentially higher than what it was years ago, so the question is: How are their joints going to withstand the added stresses? I think we’re going to see a lot of osteoarthritis in today’s players.”
A convention of retired NFL players is scheduled for June in Miami. Bass says he’ll be there pushing the health-insurance issue, and he’s sure he’ll find plenty of support for some sort of action. But Ron Mix, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who became a lawyer and activist for retired players after leaving the NFL, isn’t confident the veterans can mount a winning fight.
“[Ex-players] who do not have health insurance are a microcosm of society, a sad and unfortunate microcosm,” says Mix. “I don’t think you’re going to find much sympathy for one small segment when such a massive, massive part of our society is suffering the exact same problems. Retired football players can’t find health insurance? Well, they have a lot of company in this country. That’s the real issue.”—Dave McKenna