Three major issues face the owners and the players as both sides begin negotiations for the next collective-bargaining agreement; the current contract expires Aug. 31. Free agency and guaranteed contracts you've heard a lot about. But the stickiest issue could be an improvement of the pension plan.
Because of the glut of injuries in recent seasons, the career of today's average player is only 3.2 years, according to new NFL Players Association figures. To be vested in the pension plan, a player needs four years of service. The union wants to lower that—to one game.
"The rate of injuries means the average player isn't even protected by the pension plan," says Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA. "The threat of serious injury is the same from your first game to your last; we think a player ought to be immediately vested."
Says Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL management council, "You haven't heard me talking like that."
There will also be a big push by the NFLPA to augment the pension plan by including players who retired before 1959. Last December, 82.5% of the active players voted to support pensions for pre-'59ers. About 400 pre-'59ers would qualify for money—among them 33 of the 133 Hall of Famers—including such legends as Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, Bronko Nagurski, Bulldog Turner, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Red Grange and Sid Luckman.
When commissioner Bert Bell started setting up the fund in 1959, he specified that when money became available, pre-'59ers would be added. That finally seems possible; there is more than $200 million in the jointly managed fund. In fact, so much is available that the owners refused to make their annual $12.5 million payment this year, claiming the plan is overfunded. The union is waiting for a ruling from the IRS.
Says Lavelli: "For 20-some years I have lived with this atrocious insult. We were the guys who built pro football, making it into the revenue-producing TV sport it is today. What did the owners do to develop football? Who made George Halas, Art Rooney and Tim Mara? Today's giants—the Refrigerator and Jim McMahon—are only giants because of Sid Luckman. It's time the current players gave some money back."
Says Donlan: "The union can only bargain for the members—active players. However, Pete Rozelle wants to do something about the old-timers. I'm trying to ascertain how much money this will cost, so I can go to the owners with a definitive figure."