Friday, July 8, 2011

Honor the Memory of John Mackey


El Hombre doesn’t know what is so sacrosanct about the Hall of Fame Game, but it has enough weight to force Roger Goodell, DeMaurice Smith and a group of really rich guys stay in a conference room for 12 hours discussing their labor differences. After more than 100 days of hand-wringing, legal challenges and endless Sal-Pal reports, a completely meaningless football game has spurred the two sides in the NFL labor dispute to negotiate like grown-ups and end the silly stalemate.

It’s hard to believe the real engine in the drive to bring football to the starving masses has been an exhibition game noted more for the relative anonymity of those competing in it – after the first series or two – and the inane interviews conducted with HOF inductees while the game is going on. (Who was it that decided yellow blazers were proper for the football Hall of Fame?)

For some reason, the game Matters, so Smith, Goodell and their minions are at the bargaining table, trying to hammer out the details of a CBA that assures everybody a fair share of the gigantic revenues that will be rolling into the NFL vaults over the next several years. The league grossed $9 billion last season, and with TV right expected to double over the next few seasons (ESPN will pay $1.8-1.9 billion for Monday Night Football alone beginning next year) everybody is going to be fat and happy. Or, in the case of disgruntled Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, just fat.

As the final touches are put on the agreement, let’s hope the two sides are mindful of the obligation they have to retired players. Thursday’s death of former Colts and Chargers tight end John Mackey amplifies the need to make sure those who have finished playing the game – and with whom the game is finished – have health benefits. Mackey was one of the pioneering players at his position, displaying a rare (at the time) blend of size and speed that made him more than just an adjunct offensive tackle. Mackey could block like a lineman and then split the seam for big gains in the passing game. He came along at a time when the position wasn’t counted on for big plays but showed its value through his performance.

His career earned him enshrinement in Canton, but it is his life off the field and after football that makes him pertinent to the negotiations occurring right now. A former NFL Players Union president, Mackey was a tireless advocate for those who brought the game to life. In his later years, Mackey suffered from frontotemporal dementia, brought on by the many collisions he endured while an NFL player. He spent the last four years of his life in an assisted living facility, after the task of providing daily care for him became too grueling for his devoted wife, Sylvia.

The last CBA between owners and players, forged in 2006, included the “88 Plan,” named for Mackey’s uniform number. It provided up to $88,000 a year for nursing care for former players with dementia or Alzheimer’s and up to 50 grand for home care. That was a positive step, and it no doubt helped Mackey. But it wasn’t enough, and Smith and the current players need to make sure this new agreement contains more. Much more.

Every player who spends at least three seasons in the league should get lifetime health benefits. Good ones, too. They’re going to need new knees, hips and ankles down the line, and they should have access to the best care possible, at minimal expense to them. We’re talking $10 co-pays and $100 hospital fees. Let’s not hear anything about “skyrocketing healthcare costs” or “pre-existing conditions.” Create and fund a plan that provides for universal acceptance. If that means the NFL has to shell out a half-billion a year, so be it. And if that means Smith has to pull the grown-up card on a bunch of selfish here-and-now types, so be it.

The astounding thing about this is that the players haven’t fought for this kind of coverage from the beginning of time. Every player, no matter how rich or successful he may be today, will some day be an ex-player. And, unlike average American citizens, they will have health problems that go well beyond the normal afflictions. Not only must they deal with threats of serious conditions and diseases, but they must also confront the specter of joint replacement, dementia and whatever comes of the supplements and P.E.D.s they took to stick around the game longer.

Some might say that a player who accumulates millions in salary over the course of his career can certainly afford to augment his Medicare coverage with a gap policy. That is true. But gaining access to such insurance isn’t so easy, since the effects of NFL play render former players extremely high risks for insurance companies, who exist not to provide care but to make money. Having a no-questions-asked entry into a plan available would provide tremendous peace of mind and long-term security for players who face increasing risk of serious injury and long-term health problems playing the sport America loves.

As the final details of the forthcoming CBA are negotiated, players and owners alike should allow John Mackey’s life – and recent death – to serve as impetus to make sure former players have the care they need. Do it for John.

And for Andre Waters. And Dave Duerson. And Mike Webster.

Do the right thing.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Nets guard Deron Williams has announced he has signed to play ball in Turkey during the NBA work stoppage. Now, Kobe Bryant says he might consider a stint in the Euroleagues. What a great idea. Less money, much more practice and the chance to suffer a serious injury that puts future 10-figure earnings at risk. And we thought Ron Artest, er, Metta World Peace was nuts. Enjoy life on the Bosphorus, Deron, but don’t expect too many of your NBA compatriots to follow. Istanbul isn’t too posse friendly…So, let’s get this straight. Oregon’s defense in the investigation into whether it paid 25 large to a street agent who helped deliver recruits is stupidity? That the Ducks really paid the money for shoddy “recruiting information?” If the NC2A buys this one, then deposed Ohio State coach Senator Sweatervest should say the e-mails he received weren’t about his players swapping memorabilia for tattoos but that they were just trying to meet Mr. Roarke’s assistant Tattoo on Fantasy Island. Absurd…Nebraska’s in trouble with the NC2A for distributing nearly $28,000 in non-required textbooks and course materials to athlete-students from 2007-10. Schools are allowed to provide mandatory books and materials, but not those items merely “recommended” by professors. In a way, the Cornhuskers should be lauded for giving athlete-students access to extra books. That laughing you hear is coming from the SEC…The Cleveland Cavaliers have announced that they will own and operate and NBA D-League franchise in Canton. Don’t they already have one of those playing in Quicken Loans Arena?...The Roger Clemens perjury trial is underway, with jury selection taking up the first several days of action. Among the potential prosecution witnesses is Majoke League Baseball commissioner Bud Sellout, who will be playing the part of Captain Renault on the stand. Sellout has been undergoing round-the-clock coaching, in case he has to testify. Among his expected answers is “I’m shocked, shocked, to find out steroids were being used.” Apparently he is having trouble saying that with a straight face.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies play the Braves this weekend in their second crucial series in two weeks. Although the pitching matchups aren’t perfect for Atlanta, and the Phils will be without some key performers, it’s a measuring stick for the team with the best record in baseball and another chance for GM Ruben Amaro to see that his team needs help in the bullpen (even once Ryan Madson returns) and in the lineup. Should the Phillies sweep the three-game set and head into the All-Star break up 5 ½ games, Amaro shouldn’t stay put. The goal here is a World Series title; nothing less will do. And this team as currently constructed has holes that will make winning three playoff series difficult. There is precious little power in the lineup. The corner outfield situation is a mess. The Phillies have the best record in baseball, but 71 games remain after the break, and this is an old team that has already proven it is susceptible to injury. Here’s hoping Amaro understands the need for upgrading the roster, no matter what happens against the Braves. It’s about October and nothing else.

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AND ANOTHER THING: People will judge this as an overreaction, but the practice of players’ throwing baseballs into the stands during games has to end. No exceptions. The tragedy Thursday night in Texas may have been a horrible accident, but it could have been averted with a zero-tolerance policy for players who toss balls into the stands. This is not the fault of Josh Hamilton – the Texas outfielder who threw the ball to the fan who fell over the railing and died later in the evening. He was just doing what MLB players do every night, several times a night. And, believe El Hombre, he is paying a heavy price for his role in the tragedy. But it’s time for an end to it. One person has died, and that’s one too many. So, no more happy tosses by first basemen to begging fans after the third out of an inning. No more over-the-head throws by outfielders after they catch fly balls. Ball girls don’t give out balls after catching them in foul territory. If a batted ball leaves the field of play, it’s fair game, but that’s it. (And don’t even try to say that the next step is the installation of a net around the entire field; that’s ridiculous.) This isn’t about tradition or fun. This is about a fan who brought his six-year old son to a baseball game and ended up in the morgue. No more tragic accidents. No more baseballs thrown into the stands. Period.


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