NFL union's concern should center on improved health issues
DALLAS - An NFL labor war primer: Players, who make an average salary of $1.3 million, get 64.5 percent of the league's "designated gross revenue," which, in effect, is not so gross at all, because it doesn't include suites and concessions and merchandising and parking and those little plastic footballs.
Of course, when players find out owners are squirreling away millions, they're aghast. They demand a cut of everything, including the little plastic footballs.
Owners - average franchise worth estimated at $819 million - say, OK, but only if the percentage comes down. The union won't take a penny less than 60 percent.
Finally, Gene Upshaw reportedly counters at 59.6, which, technically, is still 60 percent if you're rounding up, or that's what he can tell the rank and file this summer when they ask over martinis why he caved in.
Bottom line: One set of millionaires is trying to extract more money from another set of millionaires.
Frankly, I'm having a hard time working up sympathies here.
Normally my vote goes with labor. But players are a hard lot to empathize with these days when money is all that seems to matter with so much more at risk.
Working conditions should be a priority for this union. Better turf, safer equipment, more long-term studies. Even the information we have at hand is enough to scare players straight to a dentist.
How many careers have been shortened by concussions? How many could have been prevented by something as simple as a mouthguard?
Between 2000 and 2003, NFL teams reported 203 concussions, probably a conservative number at that. Indianapolis reported 20.
New England? Zero.
Much of that credit goes to a Massachusetts dentist who invented a mouthguard that absorbs the shock of a blow to the jaw.
Players who use Gerald Maher's device swear by it. Any kind of mouthguard would probably help, for that matter. The NCAA requires them. The NFL doesn't, and 40 percent of players don't bother.
You'd think the NFL would want to protect its investment. Apparently you've got to look out for yourself.
In ESPN The Magazine last month, Maher detailed his frustration in dealings with Elliott Pellman, the man in charge of the NFL's studies on concussions.
Pellman told the magazine he doesn't believe the mouthguards are viable. A debatable point, probably. But what really sunk Pellman's argument was his response to reports that 15 percent of NFL players return to play immediately after a concussion and 34 percent come back later.
"If a player feels good, what's the contraindication to letting him play again?" Pellman asked the magazine. "There is none."
He should talk to Kevin Guskiewicz. A trainer who works with Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, Guskiewicz said players who suffer three concussions in a seven-year period are three times more likely to have another. In his survey of 1,742 former players, he also found that the rate of depression among those who suffered five or more concussions was three times greater.
An unproven link, but disturbing, nonetheless: Guskiewicz found players diagnosed with Alzheimer's in their early 50s, nearly 20 years earlier than the national average.
No risk if a player says he feels good? Tell that to Karl and Karen Baker.
A referee asked their 19-year-old son, Dylan, if he could go on in a 1997 Golden Gloves fight.
"Yeah," Dylan said. "Let's go."
Five seconds later, the Round Rock, Texas, youth was dead. Baker was a victim of something called "second impact syndrome," a deadly combination of two concussions in a short span. Neither concussion would have been fatal on its own with at least a week in between. Together, in so short a time, the effect was catastrophic.
No one in Texas Golden Gloves circles had heard of second impact syndrome when I asked. Chances are good Elliott Pellman hasn't either.
NFL players? They don't make safety much of an issue at any level. Many are afraid of being replaced if they report injuries. Most are fatalistic.
The players' reactions surprised Guskiewicz.
"Their wives wanted to know more than they do," he told me last fall.
You'd like to think players would make these safety issues a priority in negotiations. Instead, it's always money. Here's hoping they get what they want then. Maybe it'll buy more insurance. www.mahercor.com