NPR logo Life After the NF-Hell

Life After the NF-Hell

Gene Upshaw of the NFL Players Association answers questions during a news conference on Feb. 1, 2007, in Miami Beach, Fla. Scott Boehm/Getty Images hide caption

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Scott Boehm/Getty Images

This past weekend's tragic injury to Kevin Everett is a reminder that pro football doesn't just look like a tough sport. It is one. Maybe the most demanding on the planet. The potential grab at millions of dollars and celebrity status is a tough trade-off for what a lot of players face once they've left the NFL.

By the NFL Players Association's own numbers: Twenty-seven percent of retired NFL players responding to a survey conducted in 1989 and through the 1990s claimed "financial problems" during their first year out of the game. Thirty-six percent had the same complaint after three years. Thirty-three percent listed divorce as the major personal problem in the first six months away from football.

If all that was caused by bad financial planning or inability to adjust to life after the game, well... it would be sad, but they had their day in the sun. But the problems players face go way beyond readjusting to "normal" life. Two out of three players in the NFLPA's survey said they left football with some form of permanent injury. And with today's players bigger and faster than ever before, sometimes a constant ache is the least of an ex-player's worries. Six of every 10 players suffer a concussion; more than a quarter suffer more than one. Such head trauma may lead to dementia, mental illness and early Alzheimer's disease. These players are not only left physically debilitated — the resulting medical bills can crush them financially as well. You could fill a Hall of Fame with stories of men who once had everything and who can now barely walk, think or take care of themselves.

How is it that a sport that grosses nearly $6 billion a year can leave some of its finest players physically busted and financially destitute? A lot of former players blame their union, the NFLPA. Its pension is bankrolled in the tens of millions and annually brings in millions more than it gives out. Yet players tell horror stories of having to fight as hard as they did on the field to get their union to give up the few hundred dollars they need to buy meds, food or pay rent.

The NFLPA's longtime head, Gene Upshaw, has made it quite clear neither he nor the union place a priority on legacy players. "The bottom line is I don't work for them," Upshaw has said. "They don't hire me and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary."

That salary, by the way, is about $6.7 million. A few million less than the NFLPA spends on disability for ex-players.

Upshaw might be right about who signs his checks. But with an attitude like his, and the average career of an NFL player lasting about 3 1/2 years, active players oughta think long and hard if Upshaw's the kind of guy they want repping them.