The Strengthless Dead


Saturday’s NFL Hall of Fame induction brought a lot of noise to Canton. You had the steady applause for Cleveland Browns legend Gene Hickerson, the tearful emotion in Michael Irvin’s voice as he talked about letting his sons down and the raucous cheers for Bills running back Thurman Thomas.

But one thing the Hall of Fame ceremony quietly missed was former Chicago Bears coach and Hall of Famer Mike Ditka:

Mike Ditka won’t be in Canton, Ohio, for Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony and won’t attend another until the NFL and the players’ union improve their treatment of disabled players.“The system is flawed and when they fix the system I’ll go back,” the former Chicago Bears coach and player told The Associated Press on Friday.

Ditka said his beef isn’t with the pension system, but with the scarcity of disability payments. League officials have said 317 players collect disability totaling about $20 million a year.

Coach DitkaA handful of retired players testified before Congress in late June on this very subject, Ditka among them:

Even though two of three NFL doctors agreed [former Vikings offensive lineman Brent] Boyd is disabled as result of football-related concussions, his request for full disability of about $8,000 a month was rejected by the league and its players’ union, reports Bowers.[…]

Curt Marsh, an Oakland Raider from 1981-87, described a leg amputation, more than 30 surgeries and multiple doctor visits before he was approved.

The late Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers’ center who suffered from mental illness that was widely attributed to head injuries, died homeless in 2002, his lawyer told the committee.


Retired football players have been openly critical of the NFL and the players’ union over the amount of money older retirees get from a $1.1 billion fund set aside for disability and pensions.

The league says $126 million a year goes into pension and post-career disability benefits for retired players and their families. The accounts pay out $60 million a year to those players, $20 million of it for disability payments.

But only 317 out of more than 10,000 eligible players are getting disability payments out of that fund, officials said.

So there’s a $1,100,000,000 fund for retired NFL players, out of which regular pensions and disability benefits are drawn. $126,000,000 is drawn from it every year (though somehow the players, disabled or otherwise, only get their hands on $60,000,000). That’s 11% of the fund’s stock, which is presumably replenished through investment.

The NFLPA says that the Pension Plan has an actuarial liability of $1.034 billion1. By their estimates (and it jives with the math we saw in the other articles), that covers 93% of their obligations. That’s insanely good for a pension fund – companies like United Airlines and General Motors have underfunded their pensions for decades2. In other words, the NFL can afford to pick up a few more tabs.

Muhammad AliDitka boycotted the ceremonies on Saturday to make a point. But he also could have been avoiding a depressing sight – row after row of shaken old men. Howie Long described it after his induction in 2000: “it was a travesty, the kind of carnage I saw out of these guys who were in their 50s and 60s.” The only thing sadder than seeing athletes long past their prime is imagining the poverty many of them live in. There’s no excuse for that.

1 “Actuarial liability” is the present-day value of a sum of money I’ve promised you in the future, discounted back to today to take into account interest and growth and stuff. If I promise you $1000 in a year, and we’re presuming 10% annual return, I have an actuarial liability of $909.09. That’s why we call it Nerds on Sports, people.

2 They’re counting on Medicare to bail them out.