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January 30th, 2008 Lillian Hogan | News Stories
 

Super Bull

An ex-NFL player in Oregon is fighting to fix the league’s dirty little secret.

     
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Ram Tough: Jon Arnett gets crunched during this game against Chicago in October 1960. Nearly 50 years later, Arnett is trying to help other players from his generation.

The average NFL player plays until he’s 27. Then, with bum knees and dilapidated joints, what next?

For a star quarterback playing in this Sunday’s Super Bowl like Tom Brady or Eli Manning, it’ll probably be six-car garages. But for retired players who played decades ago when their then-working-class salaries often meant taking a second job in the off-season, it frequently comes down to choosing between groceries or meds.

It’s a truth that five-time All-Pro running back Jon Arnett, 71, and his wife, Jane, 51, work from their Lake Oswego home to fix. They’re raising money to help retirees pay for prescription medications, and also networking with hundreds of affected families and potential corporate sponsors to coax the NFL Players Association to action.

The Arnetts have identified about 100 retirees who are “unable to function on a day-to-day basis and unable to make income due to physical and mental problems that their physicians feel are related to their NFL experience,” Jane says.

And they estimate as many as 500 to 600 retired players—from the suicidal to the surgically drained—are desperate for help. The NFL has a $1.1 billion pension and disability fund. Yet only about 300 out of 8,000 or so former players—less than 4 percent—get disability payments, senior league vice president Dennis Curran told Congress last June.

Arnett, whose starting NFL salary in 1957 was $15,000, retired from the NFL in 1967 with a salary of $37,000 after 10 years playing for the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears.

He now owns an Asian food label with two major customers: Wal-Mart and Costco. He moved to Oregon in 2005 from Palos Verdes, Calif., with his wife, a native Lake Oswegan, and daughter Kimberly, 16.

Arnett says he’s blessed to have retired relatively unscathed (other than a sciatic nerve injury) to run a viable business. But he and Jane are outraged at the NFLPA’s treatment of unluckier ex-players.

“People are not meant to run into each other,” Jon says. “These guys are giving up food, their wives are working well into retirement age.… It would be so easy for the NFL to handle.”

The Arnetts say pocket change from the $7 billion-a-year league could take care of these early players’ medical bills before they die.

But instead of spending its money on suffering retirees, the NFLPA has hired Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Bill Clinton, to negotiate its problems and spent $5.6 million on legal fees in 2004 and 2005, according to reports in the New York Daily News and The Washington Post .

“I always think that if you have to bring in the big guns, you have a big problem you’re trying to hide,” Jane says.

A study reported in 2005 by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found retired NFL players face a 37 percent higher risk of Alzheimer’s than other U.S. males of the same age. Researchers found in the same study that retired players are much more likely to suffer dementia. The study was based on a survey completed by 2,552 retired players.

And it’s not just the NFL and NFLPA short-changing these men, it’s also the health insurance companies denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions or “quoting them rates that would blow you away,” Jane says. She adds it’s hard to find sympathetic ears on this issue because of the misconception that all NFL retirees are rich.

“Contemporary fans think of the Hummer-driving guy with a 10,000-square-foot house and lots of bling,” Jane says. “The fellows we’re talking about don’t have this option.… They worked in the off-season.”


FACTS: According to USA Today , the median salary in the NFL in 2007 was $770,000. Union president Gene Upshaw makes at least $6.7 million per year, according to Sports Business Journal .

The average player who gives 10 years to Major League baseball gets $175,000 a year in benefits at age 62. The same average NFL player gets $32,000 a year.

 
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