October 1, 2007

Allocating Responsibility

A partner in the firm, who knows I’m interested in football, circulated this article about former NFL players becoming disabled.  It contains a moving description of Brian DeMarco, an offensive lineman who was, among other things, on the inaugural team of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  DeMarco was badly injured when an opposing linebacker tackled him, leading with his helmet.  He suffered a serious spinal injury, but was given lidocaine on the field, and he played again later that day.  He played again a few more times that season but ultimately was too badly-injured to return to the sport.  At 27 years of age, he had to retire from professional football.  Eight years later, he was 35 years old, still a mountain of a man but destitute; he was found by a charity worker in a house with no food for himself, his wife, or his child, and less than one dollar in currency as his only liquid asset.  The charity, whose motive force is the former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, got him some cash and stocked up the family’s pantry, and helped him re-apply for disability benefits with the NFL Player’s Association.  Apparently, only about 3% of such applications are granted – and nearly every player who plays professional football is never the same after the experience.  Knees, of course, get badly knocked around, and so do heads, as most players suffer serious concussions at one point or another in their careers.  In the NFL, they hit hard.


So the question is, how badly should we feel about this?  The article from Men’s Journal that the partner circulated describes players suffering terrible injuries, some of which last a lifetime, and a union with no meaningful disability coverage to help protect or compensate these players for their performances, which earn both the union and the league tremendous amounts of money.  Mike Ditka, the former Bears coach who is a motive force behind the charity for the injured former players, is right.  It is a great shame that football is not taking care of its own.  But the impression I get is that the union is in bed with management and therefore not doing its job to advocate for players.  There may be bad memories of the players’ strike from the 1980’s and how that strike emasculated the union, but that’s no excuse for the union not trying to assert itself, and getting meaningful results for its members.  The members of the union who earn the top salaries should be the leaders in helping take care of the other players who make their great performances possible and the union provides an effective and efficient mechanism to do that.  It could be that the union needs to set up a system, and charge more dues to fund that system, to support players like the guy described in the article.


Playing pro football is a very good job, one that pays well because (in part) the money is supposed to compensate the players for the physical risks they face.  For most players, the job involves a physically punishing task, and it would be impossible for players not to know this going in to their professional careers.  Perhaps they’re not as well-educated as they should be about the lasting effects of playing football at that level for a living, but they surely know that the job involves brutal, intense physical contact.  Maybe the league minimum salary is not really enough to adequately compensate the low-end players for the physical risks they face; the article certainly leaves the reader with that impression.  But the minimum salary in the NFL, even for a rookie, is $285,000 a year, and I’d have some difficulty with the argument that this is inadequate compensation for the work.


Because of this, the one partner here is not very sympathetic to the players because they have a choice to not pursue this career and therefore accept the risks inherent in it.  The other partner’s retort is that the players may not have a meaningful choice about playing football because of the incentives and the lifestyle in which the players find themselves.  I say, sure, the money and the women and the fame are all great while they last – but is this really any different a set of incentives than that of a drug dealer or a movie star, and with about the same odds of success and risks of failure along the way?  We all would agree that they have options available other than dealing drugs or acting, so why should playing sports be any different?  Yes, this is a career that these men have worked their whole lives for, true, but it’s not like they didn’t have alternatives and other opportunities available to them along the way.


The article also leaves the reader with the impression that there are only two fates for NFL players – they can end up like Dan Marino, continuing to make millions a year on television as a commentator, or they end up like the guy in the article, on the edge of homelessness and barely able to survive.  The truth is that almost all of these guys have college degrees and they could have, in theory, availed themselves of acquiring the actual education that those degrees are supposed to signify.  It’s facile to ignore that many football players are simply passed through college as part of a negotiated transaction, but college still provides them with an opportunity that they have to make careers for themselves.  Many have done exactly that – going on to have successful professional careers as lawyers, doctors, accountants, clergymen, or stockbrokers.  Some parlay their football experience into a publicity advantage for other kinds of business (i.e., Randall Cunningham used his fame as a journeyman quarterback to partner with a Nevada contractor, and quickly became the biggest supplier of solid-surface kitchen counters in Las Vegas).  A significant number become educators, and coach football at the high school or junior-college level; some coach at four-year colleges.  It’s no one’s fault but the players’ if they fail to avail themselves of those opportunities.  Yes, there may be hundreds of guys in bad financial straits, but there are hundreds, even thousands, who have had some measure of financial and personal success and don’t need the kind of charitable support that Ditka is talking about. 


That doesn’t excuse the union or the NFL for shirking their legitimate responsibilities, of course.  But the ultimate fault is not with football.  The problem is that these players have been let down by the professionals whom they have trusted to safeguard their welfare – most of all their union, but to lesser (yet significant) degrees the also their agents, their coaches, the more experienced leaders on their teams who ought to mentor them, and their professional financial, insurance, medical, and legal advisors.  I think we should feel as sorry for these guys as we do for anyone who is let down by the people who are supposed to help them, and as sorry as we would feel for anyone who suffers from a physical disability.  They deserve compassion and the ones who, like DeMarco, fall on truly hard times should have the same sort of opportunity to get some charitable help as anyone else.  But these guys also have some resources available to them, and the real injustice is that they do not seem to have any rights back against their union, which was once happy to take their dues but now has hung them out to dry.

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