"Nobody has reached back and given a pension raise to retired workers of anything approaching this magnitude," said Karen Friedman, policy strategies director at the Pension Rights Center, a Washington, DC group that campaigns for improved retirement benefits.
With the new program, pension checks for the oldest retirees (approximately 800 players who played before 1959) have risen from $100 to $200 per month for each season played.
For those players active between 1959-76 (about 1,410 retirees), pensions improved to $200 from $100-$185 per month for each season played.
To qualify for a pension, the league's oldest retirees originally needed to have played a minimum of five seasons to be eligible. In 1998, that minimum was reduced to four seasons, thereby adding to the number of the league's oldest retirees. Also in 1998, the minimum for players who played after 1992 was reduced to only three seasons. All NFL retirees receive full retirement benefits at age 55.
"This is an important accomplishment, and the credit goes to our club owners and the players," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "They wanted to do more than pay lip service to the contributions of our oldest retired players who helped build the league."
NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw seconded the Commissioner's endorsement of the pension increases.
"We could have taken the money and spent it somewhere else," said Upshaw. "But we decided to spend it where it would have the greatest impact. We are the only industry that goes back and improves the pensions of retired participants."
The most recent pension improvement is part of a series of enhancements made by the NFL to the benefits received by retired players. Those improvements have included:
March, 1987, "Pre-59ers" receive pension.
May, 1993, 40 percent pension increase (Pre-59ers, 33 1/3 percent).
March-April, 1998, 10 percent pension increase (Pre-59ers, 25 percent).
"This is a tremendous thing," said Raymond Berry, who played for the Baltimore Colts from 1955-67. "As a player of that era, it is more than a pension increase - it is also an act that says, 'You are remembered and your contribution to today's game is acknowledged.'"
More than $200 million has been spent between 1993-2000 in additional benefits for those out of football. Disability benefits have increased four times since 1993.
The NFL pension plan pays former players nearly $40 million annually.
The extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and its players signed this past January is the fourth of the original 1993 deal. It ensures labor peace through at least the 2007 NFL season.