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Tuesday July 5 2022
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Helmet to Helmet Negotiations

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James Harrison got a jump on the holiday season this year by donating $125,000 to charities and former football players by way of the NFL front office.

The NFL's recent enforcement of helmet-to-helmet hits has been a hot topic among players, fans and the media and it’s not going away anytime soon. As the prospect of an 18-game schedule becomes a bigger issue in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations, the NFLPA will be quick to cite recent problems with neurological disorders among former players.

Despite complaints about the quality of the game, the NFL is doing the right thing in trying to curtail unnecessary violence to the head, especially in light of recent studies showing an increase in neurological disorders among current and former players.

Repeated blows to the head have created problems for numerous players. Former Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk were discovered to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease of the brain tissue caused by multiple head injuries, which has been linked to each of their deaths. Former Cincinnati Bengal Chris Henry was also found to have CTE when he died in December 2009. Henry was an active player at the time of his death, but never had a concussion in his professional or collegiate career.

At the age of 55, former players (and possibly Brett Favre) are entitled to pensions in which they’re fully vested after playing at least three games per year for three years. Several players rely on their pension in later years, however the plan was given “endangered” status under federal law in 2009, meaning that it is less than 80 percent funded. Owners and players are working to institute a rookie salary cap into the new CBA that would free up $100 million for the pension fund.

The current CBA includes a benefit called the 88 Plan. Named after John Mackey, Hall of Fame tight end for the Baltimore Colts, the 88 Plan pays up to $88,000 per year to former players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Known for having missed only one game in his 10 year career, Mackey now suffers from dementia and had to move into a full-time assisted living residence at the age of 65.

Dr. Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, started a player outreach program using her own funds and donations to provide assistance to former players. The NFL and NFL Alumni Association recently partnered with Culverhouse to hire case workers, develop a toll-free hotline and reach out to former players through alumni events. Once identified, players will receive comprehensive medical evaluations and assistance in applying for programs such as the 88 Plan.

Money received from recent fines levied against NFL players for helmet-to-helmet collisions is divided equally among the Brian Piccolo Cancer Fund, Vincent T. Lombardi Cancer Research Center, ALS Neuromuscular Research Foundation and NFLPA Players Assistance Trust. Considering how many fines have been doled out in recent weeks, non-profit professionals are probably lined up around the block to get on that list.

There’s no doubt that the NFL is concerned about the welfare of their players, but they also have some of the best lawyers and business people in the world working for them who realize that reducing the amount of head injuries this year puts a feather in the owners’ cap when negotiating an extended season.

Owners recently made a pitch to the NFLPA for the 18 game schedule offering to expand each team’s roster by one player to 54 and also add two practice squad players. Owners feel that adding 96 new jobs is a fair trade for 32 additional games. Keep in mind that practice squad players currently make a minimum of $88,400 per season, far less than the $325,000 minimum an active rookie makes.

Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said on his weekly radio show in September that the 18 game schedule was a “fait accompli.” However, in a recent counterproposal, the NFLPA requested quite a bit more than was offered up by the league, such as expanding the roster to as many as 57 players. The NFLPA also requested that a second bye week occur in the middle of the season as opposed to after the second preseason game as proposed by the NFL.

Considering the neurological problems being experienced by former NFL players and the league’s struggles to pay for their care, playing more games seems counterintuitive.

Regardless of the danger, the league appears destined to press on with additional games hoping to be better at handling the damage once it’s done.

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