But what happens when NFL players descend back to mortality, after an average pro career of 3½ seasons?
Thirteen spine surgeries, one artificial hip and 30 years of chronic pain were what followed Dave “The Bear” Pear’s 1981 Super Bowl win with the Oakland Raiders. And the 57-year-old former defensive tackle is still fighting from his Seattle home. He is one of several retired players in the Northwest and nationwide demanding that the NFL give appropriate disability and healthcare benefits to retired players.
Pear has spent $600,000 of his own money on medical bills, more than he ever made playing, he says. When a doctor told Pear in 1995 he was 85 percent disabled, the NFL told him to find a sedentary job, and denied him disability benefits.
“Looking back on it, it wasn’t worth it,” Pear says of his six-year career.
If you’re visualizing retired millionaires with six-car garages and massage therapists, think again for most NFL retirees.
For players whose careers ended before 1993—the year that a collective bargaining agreement changed things—benefit eligibility is narrow, convoluted and mostly nonexistent, says John Hogan, an Atlanta lawyer and longtime players’ advocate. And a report last week by the players union said the average number of injuries reported each week this season per team rose from 3.2 to 3.7.
“Even today’s retired players may be uninsurable after their five years of health insurance is up,” Hogan adds.
Just as the tobacco industry long knew that cigarettes caused cancer, some ex-players like Pear believe the NFL knows exactly what the sport’s risks are, but only this season took some lawsuit-averting safety measures. Those include tougher fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and explorations of improved helmet technology.
Oregon State University English professor Michael Oriard, a Kansas City Chiefs center from 1970 to 1973, notes all those steps by the league, but is pessimistic about a turnabout in consciousness when the NFL is proposing to increase the regular season from 16 to 18 games.
Oriard, now 62 and suffering from degenerative disc disease in his spine and occasional flare-ups in his sciatic and femur nerves, said a longer regular season will mean roughly 12 percent more hits, and 12 percent more concussions.
Jon Arnett, 75, of Lake Oswego, just feels lucky he can walk as a five-time Pro Bowler with the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears from 1957 to 1966. He and his wife, Jane, have held a conference for the past two years in Las Vegas aimed at educating retired players on the health risks they’re up against, including a relatively unstudied neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy that hits former football players and progresses to full-blown dementia.
There is a huge element of shame, says Jane Arnett, because players are trained to ignore pain. But she says an “aha moment” struck many of the 200 attendees when “they realized they are not an individual problem, they didn’t screw up, they are typical cases of a much greater problem.”