What was more important in the CBA settlement
The lock-out is over. The current players appear to be satisfied if not overjoyed with what they gain in the latest contract. The owners appear to be satisfied if not overjoyed with what they gain in the latest contract.
The fans, media and corporate sponsors appear to be relieved if not overjoyed that the back-room antics that dominated the past four months are over and football will resume following the first work stoppage in almost a quarter-century.
There were two major components to the new CBA, one financial and one not, that stood out to me. One is the amount of money that will go towards retiree pensions and health care. The other is the limit on full contact practices.
Several hundred million dollars over the next 10 years will go towards retirees to help improve a pension plan that currently grants certain Hall of Fame players less than $200 a month in benefits. Also, any players that take the field over the life of the contract will be offered health care benefits during their post-career lives.
This is no small concession on the part of the owners and no small victory on the part of the NFLPA.
In a time of economic stress and high unemployment, I can understand that the above-mentioned benefits are unfathomable to most fans who are struggling to pay bills and keep their family covered. I am one of those fans myself. My 401(k) is not guaranteed and my health benefits are only as permanent as my next paycheck.
My personal feelings and situation aside, I do give credit to the NFL and NFLPA for providing significant funds towards the health and well-being of those who sacrificed over the past 30-40 years in creating the single-most prosperous professional sport in the country. For the longest time the NFL could afford to provide these benefits and didn’t, so this is a significant change.
But the money for health care and retirement may not have as long a lasting effect as one easily overlooked aspect of the CBA: limited full-contact practices and reduction of off-season Organized Team Activities (OTAs).
Former head coach Ray Perkins once made headlines with his three-a-day practices during the 1987 training camp. Now it appears that two-a-days are a thing of the past. That is going to mean a lot less collisions in August training camp. The limited full contact practices will also mean almost no collisions will occur Tuesday through Friday during the regular season.
As a fan of the rapidly disappearing art of the pure form tackle, I have mixed feelings about this rule change. One thing that has set the Bucs apart ever since Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin arrived on the scene in 1996 has been the quality of their tackling. Every single Buc since then has been trained to wrap up and take down as opposed to looking for the “Sports Center”-pleasing kill shots.
Will there be the chance to practice tackling when contact is to be limited? I think so. In fact, I believe that the limited contact will re-introduce the James Harrison’s of the world to the pure form tackle.
The idiotic Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker once said without a sense of sanity that he might have to retire from football if he couldn’t “tackle” people by taking head shots as he has done repeatedly throughout his career. Since it doesn’t require players to launch themselves missle-like at an opponent, a pure form tackle is less physically demanding and may therefore extend careers.
In the short term, I do believe tackling in the NFL may become shoddier than it is now as the kill-shot seeking Harrison’s of the league try to figure out how to use their arms in a simple wrap-up, take-down maneuver. Ultimately however, I think tackling will rapidly improve and the quality of football will not fall off. But, I digress.
The question I am looking forward to answering over the next several years is which one of these new CBA-related changes will have the bigger impact on the post-football lives of the current crop of players?
Post-career health is something I have become very curious about over the past few years while interviewing and speaking with former NFL players.
Many of the players I have been fortunate to meet don’t walk like normal 50 and 60-year olds. There are noticeable limps, slow gaits and even the common courtesy of a handshake can be awkward. When I met a player from the Vince Lombardi Packers I was stunned to see how swollen his finger joints were and the varying directions the digits of his hand radiated to.
Those that limp can consider themselves the fortunate ones. The impact of head injuries in post-football life can be downright frightening.
Right before the lock-out former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide. Duerson shot himself in the chest instead of in the head because he wanted his brain to be intact for serious medical investigation. It seems Duerson felt his increasing memory lapses, bad vision and debilitating headaches were due to the violent head-on collisions he participated in during his playing days.
During the lock-out, Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey passed away. A former Baltimore Colt and one-time NFLPA executive, Mackey spent his last several years in a cloudy state of dementia.
Finally, lost in the celebratory glee of getting football back was a lawsuit filed by several retired players against the NFL claiming the league engaged in a massive cover-up of the effects football-related head injuries have on players years after they retire.
If your focus is exclusively Buccaneer-related, you may be unfamiliar with Duerson and Mackey. So look no further than Tampa Bay to find examples of the effect head injuries can have years after one’s playing days have ended.
This summer Jimmie Giles was inducted in to the Buccaneers’ Ring of Honor. A fantastic tight-end in the 70’s and 80’s, Giles’ induction press conference highlighted his career milestones but also touched on the physical ailments he copes with today.
Giles is undergoing epidurals to alleviate pain in his back, knees and neck. Giles also hinted he is concerned about the cognitive dementia that has afflicted many other ex-players when he explained that he makes it a point to read regularly so that he can “keep my mind sharp.”
Jerry Eckwood, one of Giles’ former teammates, was profiled on ESPN in 2010. The former Buc running back suffers from dementia and requires almost daily assistance.
Former offensive lineman Tom McHale’s post-football demise may be the scariest of any former Buccaneer. McHale died in 2008 of a multiple drug overdose. An autopsy on McHale found that he also suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma.
For the rest of their lives McHale’s friends and family will have to wonder if the head-on collisions he engaged in play after play ultimately impacted the decisions that led to McHale’s death.
The $1 billion towards retirees will no doubt help Giles, Eckwood and other ex-players coping with mental and physical ailments related to their playing days. But the rules on limiting contact in practice could also go a long way towards keeping the current players from suffering the ravages of diminished mental capacity.
Football will always be a brutal game. If we’re all honest with ourselves, the brutality is something that impresses us. However, there are also those of us who would like to see some of the brutality lessened to possibly improve the post-football lives of the players. The next 10 years will go a long way towards providing us with data on if this quixotic quest can be accomplished.
If fewer ex-players suffer from brain trauma, then I’d say the lockout was worth it.
Denis Crawford, August 2011