I want to tell you these things about the life of football players because something very wrong is taking place as NFL players and owners attempt to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement: The players are perceived as the bad guys, the heavies, overpaid and indulged.
This is the public's perception of a group of men who, from the moment training camp opens until the season is long over, do not have a day that is free of some degree of injury and pain; a group of men for whom the cumulative trauma and stress add up to a life expectancy that is believed to average 55 years, as compared with 70 for American men in general; a group of men who work in a field in which the high injury rate has reduced the average career to 3.5 years but whose counterparts in basketball (3.8 years) and baseball (4.9 years) earn about twice their average salary of $230,000 a year and several times their pension benefits. Surely an athlete giving up 15 years of his life for a salary that for the most part falls well on the shy side of that $230,000 average should not be found offensive just because he wants to find out if he's worth more. Particularly when the money is earned in an industry that for its owners is risk free and unusually profitable.
And what becomes of the players when their careers are concluded? They join the ranks of the walking wounded. Part of my current law practice involves representing retired athletes in workers' compensation claims for athletics-related injuries. On the average, veterans of the National Football League end up somewhere betweeen 50% and 65% disabled. The most common source of this disability is a knee injury, which, combined with a bad back (for instance) equals 50% disability. Approximately 20% of my clients will be rated 100% disabled. Most of them are unable to even stand or sit for a prolonged period. Total knee and hip replacements are common. Fused spines are a given; chronic searing headaches a plague.
After 12 years as an offensive tackle with the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders, I retired. My first job off the playing field was working in the front office of the Chargers, primarily handling contract negotiations. I left the Chargers after one year to become the general manager of the Portland franchise in the World Football League. My numerous conversations with owners and other management personnel during this period confirmed what I had suspected during my playing days: The vast majority of owners and management have a strong dislike for players—and I mean a serious distaste.
Players are regarded as overpaid louts who greedily want more than they deserve when they should be thankful to these captains of industry for making jobs available to them in the first place. When a player is injured, he is suspected of malingering if he doesn't return to action immediately—unless the bone is sticking through the meat. If he wants a raise, he's disloyal and ungrateful.
Yet, what nauseating drivel we hear about the love and respect between management and the players on championship teams. The only time management loves its players is during that brief moment of elation when the Super Bowl is won. And that feeling lasts only until the first player asks for a raise. Meanwhile, in the losing-owner's box, grumbling has already begun about his team's "quitters."
But on some level I already knew most of this before I became part of NFL management in the Chargers front office. If anyone in management really gave a damn about the players, there is no way they could have been (and still are) subjected to such physical and mental abuse. Vince Lombardi is revered for the toughness with which he treated his players. "He treats us the same," said Henry Jordan. "Like dogs." And everyone laughs and thinks Vince was cool, as if success validates anything. Al Davis, the head of the Evil Empire, doesn't treat his men like dirt, and his Raiders have won more games than any team in football for the past 25 years.
Lombardi mistreated players because he prowled the sidelines at a time when players were defenseless. Their attitudes were crippled (the coach was always right), their jobs were insecure, their unions were impotent.
And yet the public seems enamored of coaches who wreak havoc on their players. Look at the fascination with Lombardi's college counterpart, Bear Bryant. I have talked with too many of his former players to believe that there is something special about his memory to preserve. He brutalized his players in practice and tried to run off anyone he felt did not measure up to his standards. Thus he cheated them out of their scholarships in order to make room for others. Disposable, interchangeable parts, gone and forgotten.
Part of the mystique of the game, I suppose, is the belief that muscular, dim lugs are driven and pounded into "players." So we admire the drivers and pounders. And without real injuries, the possibility of injuries would not loom as part of the game's excitement.