Lawrence: Time To Step Up

With the NFL swimming in an endless revenue stream, it's time for the league to finally take care of its elder statesmen, Amy Lawrence says

Amy Lawrence
February 02, 2019 - 10:44 am

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You don't have to spend a day on Radio Row during Super Bowl Week to know the NFL is thriving. However, a few hours in Atlanta will erase any doubts about the health of pro football in the U.S. today. From the bright lights of the "NFL Experience" wooing fans to the expansive Georgia World Congress Center hosting thousands of media entities to the lavish parties ushering in the sport's biggest weekend--the league spares no expense this time of year. And why not? According to Bloomberg and other sources, the NFL raked in roughly $15 billion in revenue in 2018 and continues to churn toward its goal of $25 billion within the next decade.
 
The ratings decline is a thing of the past, barely a blip on the radar. After a regular season in which TV viewership soared once again, the NFL has welcomed SEVEN new corporate bedfellows since the beginning of January. The Denver Post highlights the league's first ever title sponsor for the conference championships with Intuit, Inc. Home-improvement giant Lowe's is also hopping on board, and the NFL just reached an agreement with its first casino partner. As more and more states take the step to legalize sports betting, the American Gaming Association estimates an annual revenue increase of $2.3 billion for the NFL to divvy up among teams.
 
It's no secret the Super Bowl is the nation's most-watched TV show of the year. The AFC Championship alone attracted 54 million viewers; and with Amazon streaming Thursday Night Football, online viewing skyrocketed 86% this season. Because fans can't get enough football, various broadcast outlets will undoubtedly leap into bidding wars as the current deals expire. On and on it goes. It's hard to imagine a scenario where the NFL does NOT attain Roger Goodell's lofty goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027. What's another $10 billion per year for a cash cow like this one?
 
All that money, and yet Hall of Fame players from previous eras routinely struggle with basic expenses and medical bills. Why?? The athletes who laid the foundation for today's NFL should be treated like pioneers and honored as trailblazers. Without them, the popularity of the current game doesn't exist. And the league has no excuse. The owners are not strapped for cash or fearful their revenue sources will dry up. It's the exact opposite. They're making money hand over fist.
 
Every year on Radio Row, I meet Hall of Famers who earned their gold jackets before the game became obnoxiously lucrative. In Atlanta, I spent time with one of the best defensive backs in history. Kenny Houston was drafted in the ninth round in 1967 and already starting by the third game of his rookie campaign. After a dozen Pro Bowls in 14 seasons with the Oilers and Redskins, he was immortalized in Canton in 1986. He told me many of his contemporaries are struggling. "At my age right now, I see a lot of guys that have dementia and Alzheimer's."

Because Houston roamed the field before athletes knew anything about the dangers of concussions and repeated hits to the head, his stories feature smelling salts as the remedy for blacking out. I've heard the same refrain from countless others. Yes, these athletes chose football as their jobs, but they had no idea the toll it could take on their futures. They weren't famous; they didn't make millions or field massive endorsement opportunities. But they made the same physical sacrifices to grow football into the country's most popular spectator sport.

"It's the history of the game," Houston pointed out. "And you have guys that are really hurting. And now that they've gotten older, you experience going to the hospital. You experience paying eight dollars for an aspirin, and you don't have any money at all. It's really sad, and it's so much pride involved. The league has picked up to some degree, but it shouldn't be settled until all players are taken care of."

When I met Super Bowl IV champion (and two-time AFL champ) Bobby Bell in 2016, he shared similar concerns. The Hall of Fame linebacker and 1969 Defensive Player of the Year with the Chiefs talked about former teammates facing major health challenges yet not having the money or resources to fight back. This cycle is inexcusable. With all the research and technology to isolate and diagnose the effects of head injuries, we know why so many former players are struggling. The NFL needs to step up and take care of the men who paved the way for its 21st century explosion.

Houston, Bell, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson,  and former Falcons and Bengals tight end Reggie Kelly are among those who partner with Mike Ditka and the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. The non-profit provides medical and financial support to NFL veterans in dire need. Kelly said it's important to him that old-timers are not forgotten. "Players that played so long ago, they don't get the same pension packages that we see current players getting. They don't get the same health benefits and definitely not the same type of salaries. Most players don't want a hand-out; they want a hand UP."

The NFL wasn't a behemoth in the '60s and '70s; it didn't generate the same revenue stream. But there's no modern NFL without the prior generations. It would require a small sacrifice on the part of the owners to properly care for the pioneers and forerunners. Because a direct tie can be established between their time on the field and many of their current health issues, it's not about charity; it's about responsibility and accountability.

With the extravagance of the NFL everywhere we look--in Atlanta, on TV, on digital platforms--the league needs to make its elder statesmen a priority. Offer free medical screenings and establish a fund available to ALL former players who need treatment. An affordable group insurance plan could be set up for those without pensions. Most importantly, ASK them what they need most.

The Hall of Fame is amazing. The gold jackets and rings are flashy. The artifacts and displays wow us. But putting on a show isn't enough. Don't simply honor your history, NFL. Preserve it by caring for your greatest resources.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, cbssportsradio.com and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.