Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ditka's "Gridiron Greats" vs. the NFLPA: Disputing the State of the "Union"

Mike Ditka at Iron Mike's in Chicago, photo by Jeanette O'TooleAlthough he coached at both Chicago and New Orleans, Champion of Faith Mike Ditka will probably always be known (both figuratively and literally) as more of a "Bear" than a "Saint." And lately the Hall of Fame coach and player turned analyst and pitchman has been growling again, claiming (through his new Gridiron Greats charity organization) that the NFL players union has not taken care (both financially and emotionally) of its former players. Meanwhile, the union has shot back, saying it has doled out millions to [qualified] injured vets, and it's doing everything it possibly can. So ... who's telling the truth?

In the sad but also complicated saga of the myriad of disabled former NFL players, you certainly could say that both sides are partly right, and this was again born out at yesterday's Gridiron Greats (which he formed to raise money for needy ex-NFL players) press conference, hosted by Ditka in his Chicago restaurant. The featured speaker was Brian DeMarco, 35, a standout offensive lineman for Jacksonville and Cincinnati from 1995-2001, but who is now, after seventeen different spine fractures, not only uninsurable, but unemployable and homeless. Almost immediately after DeMarco, who can barely walk and can no longer grip things in his hand, spoke about how the NFL Players Association had left him high and dry (and thus, his need for Gridiron Greats), union president Gene Upshaw faxed over copies of seven checks totaling $9,748.81 paid by the NFLPA to DeMarco, including two to cover rent. DeMarco then amended his statement by saying it was not emergency, but long-term permanent money that he was seeking. The NFLPA then countered that DeMarco had not filled out [all] the proper paperwork.

And here's where Ditka's temper starts flaring and why Gridiron Greats, which often hands former players money on-the-spot, was formed. Should a man who can barely grip a pen be forced to fill out mounds of forms, be taken to get three or four doctor's opinions and attend a similar amount of lawyer's meetings before he even gets a hearing? Yes, says the NFLPA, who accurately points out that their system of relief is not only dependent on but based upon the government—and we are all aware how efficient that system is! Not only did my wife have to wait years to receive money for a disability that any legitimate doctor could diagnose, but my dealings several summers ago with the Unemployment Office demonstrates why their figures are down as well.

After I was laid off from my retail management job, but still working a few legitimately allowed hours at my part-time park district job, I applied for unemployment and was accepted. But as soon as I received a check, I immediately was sent notice of an unemployment non-eligibility meeting, allegedly involving a claim against me. I passed this test, but these hostile meetings where I had to prove my case kept coming all summer, oftentimes scheduled during the meager hours I did work. But even now the nightmare doesn't end, for I just received a notice (a full three years after my unemployment) that I was overpaid 222 unemployment dollars—and they want it back NOW!

Whether the fact the government spent so much time (and money) to retrieve such a little of my compensation, or that they know almost no one saves part-time pay stubs from three summers ago (so they just give up and pay) is more aggravating is a toss-up. But either way, it proves Ditka's point. Mike likes things, whether it be football or helping people, to be uncomplicated, and the NFLPA's relief system, which combines the inefficiency of government bureaucracy with the soullessness of medical insurance, is anything but simple. Most people know that football is the most dangerous of professional sports, but because, unlike baseball or basketball, very little of the players' contract money is guaranteed, it also has the least financial compensation. The NFL can start by offering more incentives for players to earn legitimate college degrees so they have a better chance of taking care of themselves when their bodies break down. But with some injuries (i.e. concussions) even this isn't a solution, so a substantial amount of ex-players will always need aid.

To Mike, who has made a great living after football just being himself, his quest is a simple question of good vs. evil, wrong vs. right. Perhaps Ditka's assertion that everything the NFLPA does is despicable and all that the Gridiron Greats stands for is noble is a bit simplistic. But if I was a former NFL player in trouble, there's no doubt who I'd take my chances with ...

I only wish he worked at the Unemployment Office ...

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Pain of the game can lead to need of a house for the best Pro...www.hawbs.org...Help your brother...