‘NFL Labor Negotiations Aren’t Just a Bilateral Affair’ (full text from Beyond Chron)

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[originally published April 4 at Beyond Chron, http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/NFL_Labor_Negotiations_Aren_t_Just_a_Bilateral_Affair_9049.html]


by Irvin Muchnick

Addicted populist poseurs that so many of them are, our elected leaders can soon be counted on to move from March Madness to camera-hog jawboning to save the 2011 National Football League season – which evidently is as much in the national interest as eliminating Muammar Qaddafi.

But their problem will become clear: keeping autumn Sundays, as well as Mondays and occasional Thursdays, safe for diva wide receivers, vulgar coaches, and Bud Light commercials is not a conventional labor-management dispute. Here’s a scorecard of the various splinter constituencies putting both material and moral pressure on the pocketbooks and (if possible) the consciences of the National Football League and the NFL Players Association.

The following draws from my blog’s reporting on the league’s potential legal exposure for a generation of low-balling concussion syndrome; on “the rest of the story” of the suicide of Dave Duerson; and on the plight of medically and financially disabled players. Without pinning my interpretations on him, I also owe much here to the fine work of FoxSports.com senior NFL writer Alex Marvez, one of the few beat journalists to cut past the atomized sob stories to the structural nitty-gritty. (CNN yesterday reported that yet another NFL suicide, former Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Shane Dronett, who shot himself in 2009, was found in postmortem brain studies to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy from a career of diagnosed and undiagnosed concussions.)

A group of former players, led by Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Carl Eller, has filed an innovative lawsuit, one of whose goals is to keep the NFL’s obligations to retirees in force during the owners’ lockout. That is just one of several tangled subplots.

As Marvez reported, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith recently met with George Martin, the former New York Giant who is now president and executive director of the NFL Alumni Association. This long-overdue consultation did not go well, according to an internal memo obtained by profootballtalk.com, as Martin did not get the one-on-one he thought he had been promised, and felt generally patronized and disrespected. Martin’s group exists in the first place because active – and, let’s face it, shortsighted and dumb – players have not well served the interests of the whole athletes’ community.

Before collective bargaining broke off, the NFL had proposed kicking in an additional $84 million over the next two years in aid to retired players. That offer is now in limbo.

The players’ union contends that it should have sole jurisdiction over negotiation of benefits to retirees. Some Players Association officials suggest that the Alumni Association is compromised by having received league funding. Innuendo to the effect that the alumni constitute a kind of “company union” is interesting in light of evidence of how the NFLPA itself colluded with management to suppress the full story of player concussions, disability, and early death – largely because the rank and file, like their owners, prefer to focus on immediate profiteering.

Yet not even the rumblings of the Eller lawsuit and the Martin group define the extent of the issue. Retired defensive tackle Dave Pear (whose career included one of the Oakland Raiders’ Super Bowl champions), just concluded the first annual convention of his Independent Football Veterans (http://davepear.com).

Former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Brent Boyd heads another wildcat faction, Dignity After Football (http://dignityafterfootball.org). The Boyd group, though perhaps not as well organized as Pear’s, collects compelling testimony of the consequences of NFL head injuries at a level fans and sponsors can no longer responsibly ignore.

Boyd’s own legal fight with the NFL brought him into direct conflict with Dave Duerson, who despite also himself possibly suffering from CTE – a piece of speculation that could be confirmed by the brain study requested in his suicide note – served on the player-management panel that ruled on and sometimes rejected other retirees’ disability claims.

In view of what a pervasive national amateur sports problem traumatic brain injury has become – due in large measure to NFL-affiliated doctors’ foot-dragging, book-cooking academic research – I have called, specifically, for the reopening of the 11 claims rejected by NFL Player Care, with Duerson’s participation, under the John Mackey “88 Plan,” which defrays acute care expenses for victims of mental illness. Families of these players or others with information are invited to contact me at tips@muchnick.net.

For the same reason, the dynamic of NFL labor negotiations also will be affected by the investigation of the Federal Trade Commission and by Senator Tom Udall’s proposed legislation on football helmet manufacturers’ consumer safety claims.

Ordinarily in sports contract disputes, the general public has the luxury of sitting on the sidelines while the two sides slug it out. But not in this one. Public health is at stake. That’s a game in which all of us are players, not spectators.

Irvin Muchnick, author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, blogs about the history of his involvement in writers’ rights issues at http://freelancerights.blogspot.com. He is @irvmuch on Twitter.

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