RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Commentator Frank Deford has some seasonal thoughts for football's off-season. He says it's time to show some tenderness to tough guy athletes.
FRANK DEFORD: As we approach Valentine's Day, the one place where a little love is most needed is in the National Football League. The season's over, swords sheathed, and it's time to all get along.
To start with, the owners have opted out on their current agreement with the players union, and so the players are prepared to strike in 2011. The union is in a certain amount of disarray all of itself because its longtime president, Gene Upshaw, unexpectedly died a few months ago and the dispute over his successor is ongoing.
But above all the commerce and politics hovers the issue of health, which itself has caused a great rift between the past players and the union. Even Congress agrees that the union simply has not done enough for its retired warriors, having issued a 144-page report that essentially lambasted the union for its heartlessness.
The current players can't seem to recognize the inexorable fact that someday very soon, yes, they, too, are going to be the past players. Instead, they possess a very unlovely dog-in-the-manger quality.
Matt Birk, a center for the Minnesota Vikings, recently tried to get his well-paid co-workers to voluntarily contribute to the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. Out of the 1,700 or so would-be NFL Samaritans, barely a dozen responded.
I think everybody involved - owners, coaches, players, referees, union, commissioner - must now acknowledge that football is not just another sport. It's uncommonly brutal, and as the participants grow larger, stronger and faster, it is becoming more violent all the time.
Football is dangerous to your health. Large numbers of retired players suffer from all manner of physical, emotional and mental disability.
It's simply time for football - all of the NFL - to start benevolently looking after its own. I believe Commissioner Roger Goodell ought to call for some sort of summit, bringing together all the league's constituencies, as well as appropriate medical experts. It's not enough to just keep reciting, well, football's a rough, tough game and we must accept carnage as the price for amusement. In a universe where players are colliding like runaway trucks in high gear, new rules limiting contact simply may be necessary.
Certainly, though, it's time to set up some sort of special retirement insurance fund to truly care for players. Yes, the union has been mean and uncaring, but maybe tending to the wounded shouldn't be its responsibility alone.
Football players are modern gladiators, and it's time for the NFL to admit that everybody concerned has to pitch in to help those guys grow old who chose, when they were young, to offer up their bodies between the sideline stripes.
MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford. He offers up his thoughts in this space each Wednesday.
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