NFL’s Treatment Of Retired Players Needs More Coverage, But Will Networks Report On Growing Problem Or Ignore It?

By Leonard Shapiro
Updated: January 24, 2007

Super Bowl WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over the next dozen or so days Super Bowl over-kill will be flooding the nation’s airwaves, with all the predictable story lines — two African-American head coaches in the game for the first time, vindication for Peyton Manning, Sexy Rexy or Train Wreck Rex Grossman, blah, blah, blah — emanating ad nauseum from the respective camps of the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.

It will be mostly feel-good, fluff-stuff journalism, particularly on CBS, which is airing Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4 and already has announced that anchor Katie Couric will be included in its endless pre-game coverage that Sunday, even if she probably would be wise not to be distracted from covering the daily carnage in Iraq, the state of the Union or health care and immigration reform.

Still, if she continues to focus on football, here’s a tip for Ms. Katie, who keeps letting it be known she wants to be considered just like one of the hard-news boys in the business.

Get a tape of HBO’s “Real Sports” show that aired Monday night, and will be repeated seven times on the cable network before the Big Game, and hone in on a particularly chilling segment on life after pro football for so many of the old warhorses of yesteryear.

And then, perhaps it would be wise for your journalistic integrity to strongly suggest that a similar piece be produced for your own nightly news show, or even the day-long football love-in in the pre-game extravaganza.

HBO, which debuted the story on Monday night, does not present a particularly pretty picture for many NFL alums, and it’s a view the NFL probably would prefer hardly anyone really takes much notice of or dwells on, especially at a time of year when interest in the game has never been higher.

But the “Real Sports” segment really should be must-see television for anyone who cares about the game, and especially the players, no matter how much they’re paid, who literally sacrifice mind and body every Sunday afternoon to fuel the entertainment beast.

The HBO piece opens with a clip of Harry Carson’s acceptance speech during his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer in Canton.

Though it went largely un-reported at the time, the former N.Y. Giants linebacker took it upon himself to call on the NFL and its player’s union to do a far better job of protecting the health of their players once they hang up their cleats for good.

“I want to implore the NFL and its union to look after the product you have up on this stage,” Carson said that day, referring to his fellow Hall of Famers in attendance, many of whom had to limp to their seats on artificial knees or hips.

“These are great individuals. I would hope the leaders of the NFL do a much better job of looking out for these individuals . . . If we made the league what it is, we have to take better care of our own.”

In an interview also aired on the show, Carson looked into the camera and said, “I remember lying in bed thinking I can’t smile, I can’t enjoy this experience, I couldn’t be happy just being a Hall of Famer. I had to say something on behalf of those who don’t really have a voice . . . If I had said nothing, I felt like I would have lost the respect of all those who have played the game.”

Real Sports also got Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end, on camera, where he’s likely to spend a lot of time next week as the coach of the Bears’ only Super Bowl championship team in 1985.

Ditka, as usual, said exactly what was on his mind, telling HBO that he no longer goes back to Canton because of the way the NFL and its union have essentially turned their backs on many of the men he once played with and coached.

He added that he won’t return until the league and NFLPA, which he described as the worst union in sports, start doing the right thing, a stance now being taken by several other Hall of Famers who also have been boycotting Canton in recent years for the very same reason.

“When they’re no longer players, goodbye,” Ditka said of the NFL’s attitude toward league alums. “I kiss you off. You’re gone. You can’t help me . . . You can see the needs. We don’t want them to beg for it. It doesn’t have to be about red tape. It has to be about common sense. This guy needs help.

Now. It can’t be any clearer than that.”

Several guys who do need help also appeared in the show. Former Cardinals offensive lineman Conrad Dobler was one of them. Once considered the dirtiest player in the league back in the 1970s, he clearly has paid the price for all those leg whips, chop blocks and eye gouges he once perpetrated on his football foes.

He’s had 11 knee operations, seven of them in the last year, and said he now takes about 150 Vicadin prescription pain pills a month to ease the pain he feels every day.

Though Dobler said he was told by one doctor in the early 1990s that he was 90 percent disabled, when he tried to get disability payments from the NFL’s retirement plan, another doctor assigned by the league’s pension board turned him down, telling Dobler he was still capable of holding down “a sedentary type job.”

“My (football) friends, they’re all shocked,” Dobler said. “They won’t even apply now. Hey, we’re not asking for handouts. Help us get insurance so we can get our body parts fixed that we need to be fixed.”

HBO asked for comment from both the league and the NFL Players Association, but no representative from either entity would appear on camera.

HBO said the NFL did send over a press release saying that it paid out $60 million in benefits to retired players last year, and there would be a $50 a month increase in the pension once a new collective bargaining agreement was signed.

According to HBO there are 9,000 living retired players eligible for benefits, but only 144 of them now get long-term disability. Players can go to court to make their case, but the NFL almost always prevails, at least until attorneys for Mike Webster, the late Steelers Hall of Fame center, won an award of $1.5 million for his surviving family.

Webster died of heart failure in 2002 and his attorneys argued that years of banging heads in the trenches congtributed to his death and also led to a postconcussive brain dysfunction.

For a while, Webster actually was so disoriented and incapable of holding down a job, he became homeless in the years before his death.

Outside of Pittsburgh, the Webster case hasn’t received much national attention. Nor did the suicide in November of former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, at least until the N.Y. Times reported last week that Waters also apparently had sustained brain damage from playing football that led to major depression.

The Times also reported that Waters’ brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man and exhibited the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, even though he was 44 at the time of his death.

Watching the two pre-game shows before the NFC and AFC title games this past Sunday, not a word was spoken on Fox or CBS about the Waters story.

On Sunday morning, to its credit, ESPN did air a segment on its “Outside The Lines” investigative show on Waters death and studies indicating that brain injuries suffered by football players and boxers seem to indicate a major effect on the pituitary gland, with dramatic consequences.

But very much to its discredit, ESPN also is the same network that every week airs a segment called “Jack You Up” on its NFL pre-game show featuring the most violent hits of the week shown in rapid-fire succession.

There is always a disclaimer saying that no players suffered injuries because of those hits, but try telling that to the grieving families of Mike Webster, Andre Waters and surely many others who got jacked up so often, they can now barely utter a complete sentence.

But don’t expect to hear all that much about the dark side of pro football on television over the next few days.

Just for the hell of it, I asked a spokesman for CBS’s “60 Minutes” if the network’s usually hard-hitting news magazine was planning a story in its show this coming Sunday, the last to be aired before the network devotes the following Sunday to all Super Bowl, all the time.

No, he said, there were no plans to follow up on the Waters story, if only because there probably wasn’t enough time to get it ready on such short notice.

Then again, perhaps Ms. Couric will come to the journalistic rescue of her network and go try to find Harry Carson, Mike Ditka or Conrad Dobler before CBS airs the big game.

It’s a hell of a story, and needs to be told this week, and every week until the game finally starts doing right by the players who made the NFL and Super Bowl Sunday what they are today.