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The Debate: Retired players

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Although I don't plan on participating in a large-scale public debate with a fellow Blogger, I was inspired by the Great College Football Playoff Debate between two of the most brilliant (or at least more brilliant than yours truly) SportsBlog Nation minds, Sunday Morning Quarterback (as proponent of playoffs) and Kyle of Dawg Sports (against). Having acknowledged that great debate -- which I encourage all Hogs Haven reader(s) who are also CFB fans to familiarize themselves -- I move on to a matter prevalent to Redskins fans as NFL fans.

Ben at Curly R finished up today a clever two part piece on:

the confluence of money, age and health in the NFL. Over a twelve-day period from January 21 to February 2, the New York Times and Washington Post ran three pieces on the economics of football and the health of players, current and retired. Here we will tie these three pieces together and examine the politics of retirement from the world's premiere professional sporting league.
In his first installment he questions the escalation of player's salaries which has accompanied the heavy increase in the salary cap.

The second installment is the focus of this "Debate" (if anyone is willing to participate, that is) and a relevant and important matter for all NFL fans. Ben sets up the issue thus:

The league to which my sports affection is owed was built on those now-retired players, the guys I remember like Chris Hanburger (how can a seven year old not remember a guy named hamburger?), Pat Fischer, Mark Moseley. But these guys don't get a very big piece of the pie. Do they deserve one? Does the league have any responsibility for their health and well-being in retirement? Should there be a statute of limitations on injury claims? How do you prove what's a football injury and what's not?
Examples abound that should be familiar to NFL fans. Ted Johnson. Ben mentions Mercury Morris (neck injury from a failure to properly diagnose), Andre Waters (whose suicide was linked to brain damage caused by football injuries), and Earl Campbell. Wherever one might opine on any of these particular examples is irrelavent. Whether we think Ted Johnson was ultimately responsible for Ted Johnson's injury will not explain away all instances of post-retirement injury; having personally witnessed on multiple occasions the physical wreckage a career in the NFL wrought on Earl Campbell, I am confident expressing as uncontroversial fact that football affects the body in ways that are perhaps actionable. That is the position Ben at Curly R takes, as I am sure it is the position my reader(s) might take.

Ben also presents the league's position:

The league wants it to be about at-will employment. You assume risks by playing in the league, here is our injury policy, blah blah blah ignore the fine print sign here, here and here. Mercury and the others are looking for the league to take some responsibility for helping players with serious conditions get back to a normal life.
Although Ben's language is clearly prescriptive of what position he wants readers to take, the characterization is nonetheless fair. The league's position is that players adopt a certain amount of risk when playing a physical game, and thus washes its hands of much responsibility when the inevitable occurs. A similar debate began at Behind the Steel Curtain and Corn Nation Nebraska Blogger Ryan will suffice as the advocate of that view. He commented:
[The players] make their choice about what they want to do with their career. They also choose how long to stick with it. They're given access to financial counseling, career counseling, etc. What they need to do is take that stuff more serious when they're going in.

I am not willing to come down definitively on either side. Yet. but having staked the positions I will offer a few considerations that I think are relevant towards conclusions.
  1. Do not presume that what is the case in 2007 was the case in the past. An accurate evaluation of the risks involved in sport is contingent on medical science providing that information. It was not always the case that players knew the risks involved, and some of the demands of players involve a different era where the known facts were totally different than they are today. Whether that affects one's thinking on the subject I leave to reader(s).
  2. What the NFL owes former players is necessarily a function of what it can afford to pay them. I have little doubt that the NFL, as a consummate money making machine, has the resources to increase former player pensions. But without the specific numbers involved there is an inkling of doubt that I must acknowledge. The position of the NFLPA is that they do not have the money to pay out these pensions, and I am at least willing to presume good faith (because it is difficult for me to think the NFLPA is merely being spiteful, though Vincent's comments...). With that said I agree with Ben: Let's see those numbers. I believe that those numbers could easily settle the matter for the majority of fans.
  3. No matter what one ultimately concludes about the culpability, remember two final things. One is that even if players are responsible for what happens in the regular course of a game, season, or career, suspicious circumstances still exist. The game is still run, managed, coached, and played by human beings, and they err. Sometimes they err mistakenly in calculations, and sometimes they err purposefully to deceive. The latter is never forgiveable, and pointing out that players assume risk does not exonerate suspicious, deceptive, or actionable behavior. Ever. Second, remember that many retired players aren't all that different from you or I. It's easy to lose sympathy for former players because they spent so many of their years in presumed excess and celebrity. I would have happily walked ten miles in Mike Webster's shoes circa the late 70s -- as his Steelers won Superbowls behind their Pro Bowl Center -- but wouldn't have wanted to walk ten steps in the man's shoes when his damaged brain and life turned against him in the late 90s up to his death in 2002. I don't know if that were preventable but for some additional financial assistance from the NFLPA, but I refuse to be so callous to completely ignore the human suffering element involved. Whether morally serious acknowledgement of that suffering is itself enough to sway one's opinion, I leave to reader(s).
Feel free to commit your own thoughts on the matter in the comments section. Or don't.