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The former Giants running back, who produced more than 6,000 total yards and endured four operations during seven seasons, started collecting what now amounts to $700 a month when he was 45.
That’s peanuts compared with the millions he eventually earned as a fast food franchisee. But Johnson, 59, still has one question. How come he had to work his tail off in a second career while his older brother, Alex, a former Major League Baseball player, has lived comfortably without a steady job for nearly two decades?
Alex Johnson’s pension is nearly $3,000 per month including deductions for health coverage. Had the 64-year-old journeyman waited until 2005 to begin collecting the money, he would be cashing a $9,000 check every month.
“My brother played 13 years, he lives off his pension and he’s fine,” said Ron Johnson, who is part of an NFL Players’ Association advisory group that seeks to increase retirement benefits.
As the NFL celebrates its old-timers at Hall of Fame induction ceremonies this weekend, the way it treats former players is coming under unprecedented scrutiny.
While a pension may not seem important to millionaire pro athletes today, it is crucial to aging baby boomers who sacrificed their bodies playing in the era before free agency and sky-rocketing salaries. And how the various leagues treat their retirees is a study in contrasts.
For months NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have been under pressure from angry former players disgusted by stories of poor and disabled alumni. Last month, Upshaw and Goodell announced a $7 million fund to help former players who formed the foundation for world’s most successful sports league.
“We want to work as a single voice, a single group, to improve the plight of retired players,” Upshaw said. “We care about them.”
That has been a common refrain from the unions in each of the four major professional sports in the U.S. Until recently, baseball was the gold standard, though other leagues have increased their retirement benefits.
“The unions and the leagues jointly have a responsibility,” said Bob Lanza, a sports labor attorney and former counsel at the NBA Players Association. “It becomes a balance between the active players’ interests against those who will retire and those who have retired.”
Striking that balance has gotten harder in the era of the salary cap, experts said.
The leagues typically set aside a percentage of their revenues for the players, who then have to decide how to divide the pot. Setting aside more for retirees means less money for current players and their agents.
As a result, experts say it is up to the unions to make retirement benefits a priority if they want to get more for their retirees.
“It’s the tradeoff between actual money and money in other forms, such as pensions, and disability and health care.” said Paula Voos, who teaches about labor and employment relations at Rutgers. “Sports have unions that make tradeoffs.”
THE GOLD STANDARD
Alex Johnson’s numbers would have been good for $4 or $5 million dollars a year if he had played a generation later.
A career .288 hitter, Johnson played for nine teams, including the Yankees, over 13 seasons. He finished eighth in the MVP balloting in 1970 when he led the AL with a .329 batting average, had 202 hits, 14 home runs, 86 RBI and 85 runs scored. His highest salary was $70,000.
Johnson’s father owned a small trucking business in Michigan, which he helped run from the time he retired in 1976 until he turned 46, 12 years later.
That’s when he started taking his pension, which has served as the bulk of his income since. He raised two children on the pension, plus a small supplement from the family trucking business, and he has never looked back.
“I took it and I do not regret taking it,” Johnson said of his decision to take his pension at 46, one year after the earliest allowable age. “I don’t need much to live on.”
Johnson is one of thousands of beneficiaries of the most generous retirement plan in sports.
“Baseball is the best plan and all the other ones aren’t worth much,” said Charles Grantham, former director of the NBA players union.
Retirement benefits, rather than free agency, was the issue that sparked the formation of the Major League Baseball Players Association in the 1960s and has been at the forefront since.
“The players went on strike over this in 1972,” said Greg Bouris, a spokesman for the MLBPA.
Now those benefits are the envy of aging, retired athletes everywhere.
Major League Baseball funds the program, which covers all players, even those who retired before the sport had a union. Players who retired between 1970-1991 and lasted just a single season are entitled to $935 each month at 62. If they lasted 10 years they get $9,351, or roughly $112,212 a year.
A 10-year veteran who retired after 1991 will receive a $170,000 annual pension if he waits until 62 to collect it.
By comparison, NBA retirees need three seasons to qualify for a pension.
Alex Johnson knows the person he needs to thank for the simple life he lives today.
“We were very fortunate to have Marvin Miller as a player representative,” Johnson said of the legendary former leader of baseball’s players association. “If it wasn’t for him, none of the sports would have what they have today.”
It’s a safe bet that the average retired NFL player does not share the same opinion of Gene Upshaw.
With a $7 million annual salary, Upshaw is the highest paid trade association leader in the country. Retired players who receive a few hundred dollars a month in pension payments often point to Upshaw’s salary when they criticize their sport’s retirement program.
Like most pension plans, the NFL’s is most generous to those who wait, but it still lags behind baseball.
Tom Beer counts himself among the fortunate ones.
He played from 1967-1973 with the Patriots, Broncos and Dolphins and to this day doesn’t remember the second half of a game against the Bengals in 1968 when a defender rang his bell by the sidelines and he “played the rest of the game in La-La Land.”
“It’s what you did back then,” Beer said.
After playing, he became a writer, dabbled in real estate, owned a nutrition company, and has been the police dispatcher in Morris Plains for five years. He started collecting his pension at 62 to help pay for his children’s education and gets more than $3,000 each month.
By comparison Herb Adderley, a Hall of Fame lineman who played 12 years and took his pension in his mid-40s, receives just $120 per month from NFL.
“These guys played on dynasties,” Beer said. “They were the guys I looked up to. It’s not right how they’ve been treated.”
Even more recent retirees, who left the game with broken bodies, have struggled with the league’s financial and disability benefits. Too young to take a pension they could not live on anyway, the players must fight tooth and nail with the league for money to compensate them for their injuries.
During a news conference in Washington earlier this year, former Jacksonville offensive lineman Brian DeMarco, 35, choked back tears as he told of having to move his family into a storage unit since the NFL would not make disability payments to him despite a broken back, shattered elbows and significant nerve damage.
“It hurts to stand, sit, lay down,” DeMarco said before a Congressional hearing on the issue. “The system is broken and it’s not just affecting the players. It’s affecting entire families.”
Upshaw has had a long-running battle with NFL retirees who played long before the salary explosion. Upshaw became the target of intense criticism earlier in the year when he threatened to break the neck of a player who attacked his record of attaining only limited care for the league’s alumni.
Upshaw said last month the NFLPA has worked to increase pensions and benefits in every collective bargaining agreement since 1993, though players who retired before 1959, when the players association was formed, only started receiving benefits in 1993.
The new initiative will provide free orthopedic surgeries for uninsured players, additional care for heart problems and financial assistance for those who need assisted living beyond the current $88,000 a year grants.
“Disabled former players need to get the benefits they deserve more quickly,” Upshaw said in a statement.
WORKING FOR IMPROVEMENTS
Providing any health coverage at all is something Len Elmore, director of the retired NBA Players Association, would like for his members.
“We’d like the league to look back at its players not as workers but as management level executives, and those people often get health care when they retire,” he said.
Players now can buy insurance with money they set aside in health care savings accounts during their careers, but can’t get coverage through the league.
“I don’t know of a lot of businesses these days that provide health care for their retirees,” said Dan Wasserman, a spokesman for the players’ union.
Today, NBA players who retired after 1965 with at least three years experience get $500 per month for each season if they wait until 65 to collect the money. Players from the pre-1965 era, when there was no pension system, now get $300 per month for each season played.
For John Ezersky, that money is a windfall.
For 18 years, Ezersky was left out of the pension system because of a deal NBA Commissioner David Stern struck in 1989 with a group of retired players from the pre-1965 era, including Bob Cousy. The deal gave the “pre-65ers” $200 a month for each season, but they needed five seasons of play to qualify.
Ezersky played from 1947-1950 for teams in Providence, Boston and Baltimore, then spent 51 years driving a cab in New York and San Francisco. Now 85, he and his wife have lived on $1,500 a month in Social Security the past seven years.
But this year, after a nearly two-decade campaign, the NBA lowered the pre-1965 requirement to three seasons, raised the payments to $300 per month for each season, and provided backpay dating to 2005.
Ezersky said he will use the NBA money to pay off credit card debt he has compiled in retirement to cover basic living expenses.
“I don’t want to say what I owe because it will make you fall off your chair,” Ezersky said. “That money will relieve a lot of pressure.”
A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
Benefits for retired athletes vary widely depending on the sport, with Major League Baseball having by far the most generous pension plan. Here is a snapshot of what each of the four major leagues offer their retirees today.
Major League Baseball
Health Insurance: Retirees can buy coverage through the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Disability Programs: Standard disability insurance
Pension: Current vesting after one season. Can be collected between the ages of 45 and 65. Four classes of benefits, depending on era of retirement, with a maximum payment of $14,583 per month at 62 for a 10-year player who retired after 1991.
Payments for a 62-year-old, 10-year player who retired in 1976:
Beginning at 45 — $2,716 per month
Beginning now — $9,351 per month
National Football League
Health Insurance: Free joint surgery and other specialized care at selected hospitals. Disability programs include: $110,000 a year for degenerative disability problems, and $224,000 per year for active player who becomes disabled. Also, 88,000 a year for players who need institutional care related to dementia, $50,000 a year for at home care.
Pension: Current vesting after three seasons. Can be collected between 45 and 65. Minimum payments for oldest class of players are now $250 per month for each season played if taken after 55. Current players receive $470 per month for each season beginning at 55, or $1,025 per month for each season if taken at 65.
Payments for a 62-year-old, 10-year player who retired in 1976:
Beginning at 45 — $1,130 per month
Beginning now — $4,782.50 per month
National Basketball Association
Health Insurance: No access to NBPA health coverage. Current players an set aside money pre-tax for health care payments in retirement, including buying insurance.
Pension: Current vesting after three seasons. Can be collected between the ages of 45 and 65. $300 per month for each season before 1965. $500 per month for each season after 1965. Maximum of 10 seasons.
Payments for a 62-year-old, 10-year player who retired in 1976:
Beginning at 45 — $15,000 per month
Beginning now — $5,000 per month
National Hockey League
Health Care: Retired players can purchase coverage through the National Hockey League Players Association.
Pension: Deferred income plan with contributions/vesting beginning after 160 games. Retired players can collect between the ages of 35 and 69. U.S. teams contribute $45,000 per year for each. Canadian teams $18,000, maximum allowable under each country’s laws. The longer the investment sits, the more it grows, the higher the yearly payments when players begin to draw on it.
Also, for 234 senior players over 65, supplemental payments of $750 per year for each year of service.
Payments: Handled differently than other leagues. The NHL puts $45,000 into a managed investment fund for each year a player has in the league. The amount each player receives is based on the age begins taking payments and how well the fund has performed in the market.