When four former NFL players testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee this week about the league's disgraceful treatment of retired and disabled veterans of the game, they sounded an awful lot like the elderly NBA retirees who fought for decades for a decent pension before finally winning that fight this year.
After a lot of them had died, that is, which many among the group believed had been the NBA's long-term plan for dealing with the issue: waiting until the issue ceased to exist.
Former Minnesota Vikings lineman Brent Boyd called the NFL's retirement and disability policy "delay, deny and hope I put a bullet in my head," the Chicago Tribune reports.
Boyd, 50, hasn't worked since 1999, having been diagnosed with clinical depression. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Boyd says he suffers from constant headaches, dizziness and depression as a result of concussions sustained in his playing career, which ended in 1986.
His claim for full disability payments was denied in 2002 by the six-member panel of league and NFL Players Association officials that decides on benefit claims.
"The NFL was hoping I'd go away and die," he told Congress.
The subcommittee heard from Boyd, Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, former Oakland Raider Curt Marsh and former New York Giant Harry Carson, as well as a representative of the late Mike Webster, the former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who was denied benefits before his death in 2002 despite an NFL-approved doctor saying he was disabled because of head injuries suffered while playing in the league.
It heard tales of massive red tape and a system designed to deny benefits to players whose bodies are wrecked while in the employ of NFL teams.
"If you make people fill out enough forms, if you discourage them enough, make them jump through enough hoops, they're going to say, 'I don't need this,'" Ditka said. "This is ridiculous. They're frustrated."
"Why can't this be taken care of?" he asked.
Why indeed. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., seemed flabbergasted to hear from NFL Players Association lawyer Douglas Ell that 317 out of roughly 8,000 retired NFL players receive disability payments. Waters, who is married to a former NFL player, asked Ell to repeat the figure.
"In one of the most dangerous sports in the history of mankind, only 300 players are receiving disability payments?" she said.
It was union chief Gene Upshaw's statement last year that the union doesn't represent retired players that gave juice to the vets' efforts to publicize their situation, with Ditka their most prominent spokesman. Conspicuously and conveniently absent from the hearings because they reportedly had other commitments: Upshaw and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The union is not known as a stiff advocate for the league in collective bargaining. When Boyd followed Ell and NFL executive Douglas Curran, who had told the subcommittee how the process is improving and the benefits are being paid out according to agreements reached in collective bargaining, he said, "Now that they have put the lipstick on the pig, I want to tell you what reality is."
The league pays out $20 million a year in disability payments -- from a $1.1 billion fund.
"There's money, there's resources there," Ditka said. "Take care of the people who need it. And that's all we're asking."
The hammer Congress has here is that it can threaten to take away some antitrust exemptions the NFL enjoys, not as complete as baseball's exemption but important and lucrative nonetheless.
Don't hurt yourself holding your breath for that to happen. But with a spokesman like Ditka, the NFL ought to be feeling plenty of pressure from the media and the fans. That's me and you.
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Hollinger system: Take Durant, not Oden [PERMALINK]
Just in time for Thursday's NBA draft, ESPN's John Hollinger, who for my money is the best basketball analyst out there, has unveiled a system of evaluating the pro potential of college players.
Hollinger writes that the system, applied to previous years, is "a big improvement on the actual drafts" in predicting NBA success, which by itself isn't saying a whole lot. "While I can't make a system that's omniscient," he writes, "at least this one doesn't result in consecutive lottery picks being spent on Jared Jeffries, Melvin Ely and Marcus Haislip, which is what actually happened in 2002."
The headline is that the system -- note to Hollinger: This system needs a name -- ranks Texas forward Kevin Durant ahead of Ohio State center Greg Oden, who most observers believe will be the top pick Thursday. The system rates Durant ahead of Oden by a lot.
"Kevin Durant is the best talent to come out of the college ranks in the last half decade," Hollinger concludes from his rankings, with Durant's score blowing the previous best, that of Carmelo Anthony, out of the water. Another surprise: Oden's teammate Mike Conley Jr. is the highest-rated point guard in the past six years except for Chris Paul.
Hollinger's system takes into account a player's age -- he writes that it's a huge factor that's usually overlooked in assessing college talent -- steals, blocks, rebound rate (taking his height into account), 3-point shooting and Hollinger's "pure-point rating," which is an improvement on the dumb assists-to-turnover ratio stat.
It marks players down for being too short or over 7 feet tall, which Hollinger says is often a predictor of players underperforming expectations in the NBA, though I have a quibble with that. It subtracts points for poor 3-point shooting for perimeter players and for poor rebound rate.
Here's Hollinger on those 7-footers: "Seven-footers in the drafts I studied tended to greatly underperform their college stats in the pros. Perhaps there's an easy explanation for this: If they were that big and hadn't already bolted for the NBA, that was perhaps the first sign something was wrong. Additionally, they sure as heck weren't facing off against many players their own size. This affects Greg Oden, Spencer Hawes and Aaron Gray in this year's draft."
So Oden's marked down for going to college, which he was forced to do by a new age-limit rule. Before last year, he'd have gone straight to the pros.
Still, Durant's point total was 870.7, Oden's 667.9. That's a daylight second for Oden. His score ranks him closer to the 20th-ranked player, yet another Buckeye, Daequan Cook, than to Durant. Hollinger doesn't say how much he subtracts for a guy being 7 feet tall, but it can't be that much.
As with most systems of this type, I'll have to take Hollinger's word for the moment that the whole thing works. Even if he showed his work, as they used to say in that high school geometry class I failed, I wouldn't know whether he was blowing smoke. Time will tell if his 2007 and future rankings predict NBA success.
For now, what I like about the system is that it confirms some of my highly unscientific biases and hunches, though not all of them. It names Carlos Boozer the best player in the 2002 draft. I didn't think he was the best player that year but I thought he might have been a lottery pick, rather than a second-rounder, which is where he went.
It also names Andrew Bogut, the consensus No. 1 pick in 2005, the fifth best college player in that draft. I tried to warn the Milwaukee Bucks.
You can see how well my system -- known as the King Kaufman Sports Daily Just Start Typing System -- evaluated past drafts at these links:
I seem to have been on vacation for the '04 draft. Too bad, because that was the year I had the smartest, most accurate commentary of my career all set to go. Take my word for it.
Previous column: Minor league baseball on TV
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