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Clarifying our position on retired players

488px-Jeff_Nixon

Retired player Jeff Nixon (pictured) has taken aim at yours truly today, based on my recent suggestion that the Tom Brady plaintiffs should amend their complaint given the expected retirement of linebacker Mike Vrabel to assert via Vrabel any legal claims that retired players may have, in order to render the Carl Eller class action moot.

And so I need to clarify my position regarding the men who made the game what it currently is.

First, and as I’ve said many times, today’s players and owners have a clear moral obligation to take care of the men on whose shoulders they are currently standing. And we hope that they will. The attitude once expressed by former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw -- that he represents only the interests of the current players -- was unfortunate and misguided. Both labor and management need to recognize that, as we learn more about the long-term health consequences of playing pro football, the financial resources made available to former players need to be increased.

It would be easy to say that the former players should have negotiated better benefits packages or taken less money while playing in lieu of more money later. But no one knew how big the game would become, and even fewer knew what we’d learn about the many debilitating conditions that create long-term expenses that weren’t considered during past labor talks.

That said, there’s no clear basis in law (as far as I can discern) for retired players to elbow their way into an already complex and delicate collective bargaining process and demand anything from the current players or the current owners. I gave lawyer Michael Hausfeld a full and fair chance to articulate his position on Friday’s PFT Live, but nothing he said makes me believe that Carl Eller and the other named plaintiffs who now purport to represent all retired players have any legal standing to force their way to the bargaining table, and to potentially prevent the lockout from being resolved and football from returning.

Although Hausfeld said that the Eller plaintiffs don’t want to keep football from the fans, the power play that they pulled on Monday could have unintended consequences. Regardless of whether Hausfeld, Eller, and company claim that they only want to be involved in the portion of the talks that relate to retired player benefits, either the league or the players -- or both -- could be disinclined to finalize a labor deal with that fairly important point unresolved.

The biggest problem, in our view, is the ongoing absence of a single voice that speaks for all retired players. As we pointed out on Friday, three of the five players at the most recent labor negotiations are retired. What makes them any less qualified to represent the interests of the retired players than the group of players who opted to file suit once the CBA expired?

The fact that Nixon has strong ties to the George Martin-led (and NFL-supported) NFL Alumni Association (indeed, his blog appears on the NFL Alumni website) suggests that Martin’s group endorses the efforts of the Eller plaintiffs, even if Martin has yet to come out and say so, possibly in order to preserve that no-interest-loan pipeline to the league office. Still, there currently are too many voices purporting to advocate on behalf of the retired players. At some point, the retired players need to identify -- and defer to -- one and only one voice.

Until then, I’ll continue to advocate for the NFL and the current players to take better care of the men who made this game great, despite Nixon’s not-so-subtle attempt to incite a former player or two to whoop my ass. “I have an email list of 4,000 retired players that will be receiving my rebuttal to Mike Florio’s article,” Nixon writes. “I would suggest that the next time Mike Florio is in the presence of older retired players, he wear a helmet.”

(Even Nancy Grace thinks that’s a little over the top.)

But I’ll also continue to believe that one small group of retired players has no legal authority or ability to bog down the apparently genuine attempts of the league and the current players to resolve the lockout.

We realize that football players often have a very linear approach to reality, and that problems typically are confronted by dropping a shoulder and running at them, full speed. In many situations, however, a more careful and reasoned approach is required.

This is one of those situations. After all, if the Eller class action delays or prevents a new CBA, the money lost by the league and the current players will include money that otherwise would have gone to the retired players.