2.12.2009

Are You Ready for Some (Life after) Football


I've written sympathetically of highly paid athletes in this space before, as well as of the health hazards of football in particular. So this piece by SI's Frank Deford caught my eye the other day: "This Offseason, NFL Needs to Do More for Its Retired Warriors." Football, in particular, is a violent sport that beats the longevity - in terms of career and lifetime - out of its participants. Deford points out that NFLers are not unlike workers who worked with asbestos until we found out asbestos was hazardous.

Now, there's a reason NFLers get paid well. They perform a service that the free markets - in the form of fans, advertisers, and media companies - value highly. Their shortened careers, and the sacrifices they make during those careers which then compromise their earning potential and lifespan afterwards, help justify their high salaries.

So it would seem to me that a couple of things need to happen. One is for players, with the help of the NFL, to carve out some of their current earnings to take care of themselves and each other during their retirement. Most of our employers provide, and even contribute to, savings plans so we can smooth 30 to 40 years of earning a salary over 60 to 80 years of life after school. To the extent that NFLers have particular health-related issues, post-career resources could be diverted to prepare for such contingencies. This capitalist would even be happy to see some pooling enacted, whereby some of an individual's savings go into a pool to provide for other peers whose circumstances require additional assistance.

Second is for the NFL and the players' union to reach some sort of argument, however symbolic or substantial, to get current players to help contribute to a fund that provides for former players who played before the era of higher salaries, who may genuinely be classified as in need of financial assistance. Current players owe a literal debt to their predecessors, who helped make the league but who have not yet directly reaped the benefit of its contemporary success. Not unlike alumni giving to the school that helped make them who they are, NFLers might be encouraged to strike a deal with the NFL to help take care of those who helped paved the way for them.

Surprisingly, for someone who enjoys sports and business, I know very little about sports business: contracts, salary caps, the mechanics of how teams and leagues make money. So on this particular sports and business issue, I may have it all wrong. But Deford is right: it's not good for beat-up football players to simply be "out of sight, out of mind," and to languish alone and in pain, not when their likely plight is known and we can do something about it today to prepare for tomorrow.
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