There is a lot of money in the NFL. The players are millionaires and the owners are multi-millionaires, or billionaires. The revenue generated by the league is phenomenal and shows no signs of slowing down. Television revenues keep going up. Ticket prices keep going up. The price of a hot dog keeps going up and new stadiums keep going up. The NFL is the most successful sporting entity the world has ever known.
But it was not always that way. Baseball and college football dwarfed the NFL in popularity. Baseball was the national pastime and the thought of playing football for pay was considered uncivilized. It was not uncommon for a college star to pass on playing the NFL. Former President Gerald Ford, who was an All-American at Michigan, passed on the pros to go to Yale Law School. That seemed to work out for him.
Players were paid a great deal less back then, not just in true dollars but in relation to society at large. I heard one NFL legend say he took a pay cut from his booster supplied job to play in the NFL. Most guys had to work another job in the off-season. Coaches too. My grandfather sold insurance in the '50s from stories I have heard. Now this of course was voluntary on their parts. No one forced them to play or coach. No one lied to them about the wages. They all knew it was a physical and some would say violent sport. Injuries are commonplace. So do not shed a tear for these guys. They were not duped or manipulated.
But here is the rub. Football is the most dominate sport on the horizon. It is flush with cash. Players, coaches and owners are well compensated. Most of those folks who have a decent career are set for life. The minimum salary for rookies is more money than most people make in five years. I run a mechanical contracting business outside of Green Bay and we employ 18 people. Our yearly revenues, which generates decent lives for 18, is about half of what the average Pro Bowler makes in a year. 18 people are well compensated for a year, not to mention the ancillary business we generate with our vendors for about the price of a journeyman guard. It is mind boggling if you really think about it.
Herb Adderley, a member of the Hall of Fame, is on the record as saying he gets $126.85 a month from his pension. That is flat out ridiculous. It is not as if the NFL is struggling financially. They could evaluate the situation and help those who need it. Why cannot Willie Wood, who lives outside of Washington DC, go by the Redskins offices and have them take care of his medical ills like they would a current player.
I am not implying that these guys are legally owed anything. They are not. I am not saying they should get thousands of dollars a week in pension and disability benefits. What should be done is that the guys who need help have somewhere to turn. Some are too proud to ask for help, but if there were a mechanism in place for them to get help, then they at least have the chance.
The league should want to do something about it. They should not be embarrassed into it, which is what is happening. They have the means. Now all they need is the desire. I hope that they do the right thing. I just hope they do it because it is the right thing to do, not because they are afraid of the negative publicity. Some of the guys like Kramer and Ditka and Willie Davis are stepping up to help. Why cannot the NFL who benefited from the careers of these men do likewise?
These men were instrumental in creating a monumentally successful business. They sweat and bled for it, and some are physically still paying for it. They should be allowed to spend their quiet years in relative comfort. The NFL can do more and it should.
Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.