Former NFL Players Unable to Pay Medical Bills
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
In the unlikely event you didn't see it or haven't heard about it yet, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in a stunning 17-14 victory over the New England Patriots last night, ending the Patriots' perfect season. But there was another football story on Sunday, one that describes a growing problem for the National Football League and its players union.
In Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, staff writer Michael Leahy tells the story of Dave Pear. He won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders, and before that, he helped build a franchise in Tampa Bay, Florida. But one bad hit forced Pear to retire, only to discover that after years of playing through pain and injury, his body was deteriorating fast, and his pension evaporating even faster. And he's not alone. Dozens of former players are now pressing the NFL and the players union for more pension and disability money, saying their football injuries have crippled them.
Michael Leahy joins us now to talk about his piece. It's called "Broken Glory." Thanks so much for talking with us. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: THE TITLE OF MICHAEL LEAHY'S PIECE IN THE WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE IS "THE PAIN GAME"]
Mr. MICHAEL LEAHY (Writer, Washington Post Magazine): Oh, thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: When you visited with Pear in Seattle, you saw what he's going through. Can you tell us what he's going through?
Mr. LEAHY: The first day we spent together - and we spent four full days together. The first day was a reflection of what all the four days would be like. And he greeted me during a morning, and he was shivering. He was wearing a heavy winter coat in his house. And he just kept sort of repeating are you cold? I'm just so cold. And finally, I asked him to tell me what the temperature was. And so - and the problem in the house wasn't the temperature. It was 72 degrees in the house.
MARTIN: And that's not the only issue. You mentioned he's got short-term memory problems. Like he…
Mr. LEAHY: He has cognitive problems - severe cognitive problems that include significant memory loss, particularly profound short-term memory problems. And that sort of manifested itself on that first morning when he very kindly asked me if I'd like a drink of water and got me some water, and then just minutes later repeated that question, and then repeated it again and again over that first day we were together. But, you know, it just sort of speaks to this whole list of problems that have yet to be addressed in Dave Pear's case. And…
MARTIN: Well, how widespread is this? And is there no question in your mind that his injuries are football related?
Mr. LEAHY: Oh, yeah. And they - and people don't dispute that. The head of the players union, with whom Dave Pear and other retirees have been - I think the fair word to use is battling - is Gene Upshaw, the former All Pro and Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders. Dave Pear and Gene Upshaw were teammates in the late 1970s with the Oakland Raiders, you know, and Gene Upshaw is very upfront about saying, you know, he knew Dave Pear was injured there.
And his career changed with one hit in the Seattle Super Dome, when the Raiders were in the late stages of losing to the Sea Hawks. And late in the game, he put a big hit on a very big running back and felt a pop in his neck. And he was never the same again. It turned with one hit. And Gene Upshaw remembers him being injured. There's no dispute over that injury. The question raised by the league and by the union, which has resisted supporting Pear and others on these kind of claims, the point with Pear is that he didn't meet the very tough criteria for disability payments back in the mid-1990s when he last filed for this.
So while Upshaw and others like him and sympathize with him, they say there isn't much they can do. Now I should point out the fact that the Social Security has judged him disabled has raised the question as to whether or not the rejection of Pear's claim in 1995 was a fair one.
MARTIN: I think it would be surprising to a lot of people that a lot of the former players are as mad at the players union, if not more mad at the players union, than they are with the league.
Mr. LEAHY: That's exactly right.
MARTIN: Why is that?
Mr. LEAHY: I just think, you know, I think, Michel, they say these guys ought to be our advocates. And what Gene Upshaw says, not argumentatively, he just, you know, he said to me one day, he said, you know, Michael, my job here is to represent the active players. And he said that's, you know, that's the task. And the league will say, well, you know, management will say that their principal obligation is to the fiscal health of the league. So that means every, you know, it means the retirees are left out.
MARTIN: Just very briefly, Michael - this issue is just starting to kind of come before the public, and the players are - the retired players are becoming more aggressive about pressing their case publicly. I understand there have been some hearings on Capitol Hill about this.
Mr. LEAHY: Right.
MARTIN: Is there anything happening? Is there any sign that policy makers, law makers are getting interested?
Mr. LEAHY: A number of legislators, Michel, have said that they're going to keep an eye on the NFL to see how they address this problem. There were some quite disgruntled senators at a hearing in September, and their attitude was more or less, we want to give the league and the union some time to address this. But Senator John Kerry said, you know, that he wants the league to - this was his phrase - to get its house in order when it comes to this issue. So I think that is a way of saying that while legislators are content for the moment to give the league and union some time to work this out, that they're not going to wait indefinitely.
They want to see something done. And the - at some point, this problem, it will become such a public relations problem for the league that it will be impossible to ignore. So I think Congress was sending the message, particularly that the clock is ticking on this and that both the league and the union need to address it in a meaningful and comprehensive manner.
MARTIN: Michael Leahy is the author "Broken Glory," a piece in this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, you can find a link on our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore.
Michael Leahy, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. LEAHY: Michel, thanks so much for having me.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.