Much Pain, No Gain?

By Dustin Dow
Updated: July 1, 2007

CINCINNATI — The ugly side of the National Football League went to Washington last week. It brought with it former players’ tales of debilitating injury and financial ruin.

As last Tuesday’s House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on NFL pensions and disability payments made clear, many gridiron gladiators with lucrative contracts morph into financial mortals, contending with serious injuries when they’re done playing, usually well before age 30.

NFL players are well compensated. But with the average career lasting 3.5 years, according to the NFL Players Association, a gridiron job offers no guarantee of financial security for life.

Depending on the severity of their injuries, players may be eligible to receive disability checks when they finish playing. Otherwise, they have to make ends meet until retirement benefits kick in at age 45.

Following the Congressional hearings, three members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law told the New York Times they would consider legislation to improve how the league takes care of its retired players.

The NFL and players union say there is another side to the story.

Tuesday’s hearings, Bengals owner Mike Brown said, painted “a picture that was as disturbing as anything that could be presented. I don’t think it was complete or very accurate.”

“The NFL has paid $140 million in disability to retired players. That’s a lot of money, and doesn’t reflect someone turning its back on people who were part of football at one time. It isn’t fair to represent us that way.”

If nothing else, the hearings should serve as a wake-up call to today’s NFL players.

Jim Corbett, a former Bengals player and a financial adviser for professional athletes, counsels players to plan for life after football.

“Unless you’re a player who’s drafted in the top half of the first round and getting a nice signing bonus, you’re not going to be set for life by playing in the NFL,” Corbett said. “Most of these guys aren’t making more than $500,000, and your agent and taxes take half that.”


Corbett, 52, knows that reality firsthand. He was a fourth-year tight end for the Bengals in 1980 when he injured his knee during a game in Cleveland.

He said he woke up in the hospital and knew he would be released.

“I thought, ‘Damn, I better find a job,’ ” Corbett said.

Based in Fort Mitchell, he said he advises about 50 athletes, including current and former NFL players.

“The first thing they want when they get that contract is not a mutual fund,” Corbett said. “It’s an earring or a car, because money represents to them something they’ve never had. So instead of fighting it, I give them about $50,000 of what I call ‘stupid money’ that they can spend on anything they want. The rest goes into the retirement plan.”

Once they retire, among the first things former players must take care of is finding health insurance. The NFL offers family health insurance for no more than five years after a player retires. And a player’s need for medical attention typically intensifies quickly, Corbett said.

“Every joint in your body kills you,” Corbett said. “You’ve been running into people since you were 8, 9, 10 years old. Everything is knocked out of place. I’m probably better (off) than 99 percent of the guys, and every day my shoulders and neck are in constant pain. Herniated discs. Injections in my back.”


Former Bengals star Ickey Woods knows all about that.

Woods, famous for his “Ickey Shuffle” touchdown dance, isn’t dancing anymore. The pain from years of playing football is becoming excruciating, he said.

A knee injury in 1991 cut short his career at four seasons, and it now threatens his quality of life.

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