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But alas, said Henderson, the NFL labor relations negotiator, that tale turned out to be urban legend. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the early '90s found little difference between the mortality rates of NFL players and the general populace.
Each side smelled racism. "Seventy percent of the current players are black and 70 percent of the retired players are white," says Dobler. "So a cultural thing is going on here. The league that's 70 percent black is telling the league that was 70 percent white, 'Screw you.'"
"Race may be an issue," says Henderson, an African-American. "There's been too many comments from retired players about thugs wearing jewels and driving racy cars denying money to the guys who say they built the game and made it great."
But the active players, for the most part, voice a desire to help their destitute forebears, and when one of them—Chiefs offensive tackle Kyle Turley—donated his paycheck from the season's finale to help them, hundreds of others anted up.
Wonderful, says Upshaw, he's all for such generosity, but, he adds, when he made his presentation to the current players at team meetings last fall, showing how much he and the executive committee agreed to put aside for the ghosts' benefits plan, he often heard a rumbling of surprise that told him there are limits.
So let us talk to the current player reps, demands Laird, the former Colts safety who runs Fourth & Goal. "Upshaw refuses to allow me to," he says. "There's no communication going on. We have no voice, no vote, no representation. No one ever asks us what we want or need."
My head swam. Both sides, thanks to Parrish, were armed to the teeth with data they claimed proved their point. It would take a year and an army of auditors to determine whose numbers were accurate, and I had neither.
I wondered if somehow, instead, all the clanking of canes and walkers and titanium knees could cease for a moment, if all the black-and-white, good-against-evil banners could be removed, and a straightforward debate could commence, with the color gray invited. Because it would be a doozy, a Scruples question for the ages.
Why should current players, who pay an average of $235,000 a year for their own benefits, pay to increase the pensions of former players, when employees in few other corporations do? How could they not, with all that misery right in front of them, when they're earning such staggering sums? But don't most of us—windows up, doors locked, cellphones to our ears—roll right past misery every day? All those fans out there, howling for the dignity of their old heroes ... would they agree to take pay cuts to improve the benefits of employees who worked for their company 30 years ago?
How many years should a man have to work to receive a hearty pension? Is three years, the NFL's minimum to be vested in the plan, enough? Or six years, the average career of a vested NFL player? That's one seventh of an average American's working life. Who could expect to make a living wage for the rest of his life off that?