Holler: NFL alumni deserve peace and a piece

Former NFL players are gathering together again in their fight against the old practices of the NFL. Some of their stories are downright tear-jerking, but a settlement may be the best they will get.

"Delay, deny and hope they die."

I've interviewed a lot of athletes over the past 20 years, but never has an answer to a question I asked made goose bumps mysteriously appear on my arms and an icy ball of sweat role straight and quick down my spine. It was a moment of clarity for me spawned from a lifetime of agony from somebody else.

For the most part, Vikings fans don't remember Brent Boyd. He was a vague memory for me when I interviewed him five years ago, even though I'd like to think my repository of Vikings knowledge is deeper than most. I knew who he was (he played from 1980-86 with the Vikings). I had heard through the grapevine that he had suffered multiple concussions – anyone who tells you there is a phrase "mild concussion" has never had a concussion – in a short period of time and things were pretty bad. Until I spoke with him, I had no idea the extent to which the NFL had taken the quality out of Boyd's life.

In my family, there was a generations-long unofficial family motto that Holler men don't cry. Ever. When I got done with a 42-minute interview with Boyd, I put a stain on the family motto. I cried. For good reason.

At question at the time was a longstanding dispute between Boyd and the NFL's retired players' benefits plan. Boyd was routinely suffering paralyzing headaches and post-concussion symptoms, but he played at a time when NFL players were little more than professional wrestlers, boxers, daredevils or carnies. They didn't have "people" representing them. Either a player served as his own agent or had his wife or "brother-in-law with moxie" take care of contract negotiations. The problem years later is one that, for players like Boyd, each new day has been yet another trip to hell and, after a semi-restful night's sleep, it returns for another engagement the next day. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

The quote that triggered my response was Boyd's resignation that, after years of fighting and getting his pins knocked out from under him by a multi-billion-dollar opponent that could hire the best legal minds that kind of cake can buy, he knew what he had become. Boyd was a thorn in the lion's paw. He had some light on him and didn't run away when it came on. Most thorns prefer to be left alone, but once imbedded, Boyd became a flashpoint to change.

Boyd's "delay, deny and hope they die" comment was part of what the NFL was growing into – transforming from a somewhat shady organization steeped in Mob-connected owners and muckedy-mucks running the show, into a global sports giant. For a century, Major League Baseball held sway economically and as the primary source of attention of the media in the sports world. The NFL was the rag-tag little brother. Much has changed in last 20 years. Put the Steelers and Ravens head to head in midseason against Game 7 of the World Series and you know what you'll get in terms of ratings. The NFL has become the envy of baseball, where an elite handful of teams hold sway over the chances to win a championship. Back when Boyd played, the NFL was at a much, much lower scale.

The players union had taken baby steps to having legitimate representation, but the owners held the hammer and smacked it down when they felt it was appropriate. The Golden Rule was in play – the guy with the gold made the rules. Much like the current NFL, jobs were hard to come by. But without the player movement that ultimately needed to be ordained by the courts – free agency was a hard-fought process for those who went through it – Boyd was a pioneer in "fighting the system" at a time when the system had a choke-hold on the labor force.

In 2007, Boyd was preparing to speak to a Congressional panel about the power of the NFL to deny medical benefits to union members simply because they played in an era when the complications of multiple concussions weren't acknowledged. The financial pickings 10-20 years weren't nearly as lush as they are today. When a former player was seeking medical bills to be paid by the league, that was money coming straight off the bottom line – not a write-off as it is in the current NFL pie of financial largesse.

Boyd's claims, as well as those of many former NFL players, were routinely rejected by the NFL. Thanks to players like Boyd, a floodlight was thrown on the concussion issue.

As such, the NFL hired the best legal minds available to come up with viable excuses to deny claims of former players that said their day-to-day misery, where death is too often a preferred option, was caused by being in the NFL's employ. What has resulted since then has been nothing short of remarkable.

Why do you suppose the league has taken such an incredibly strong stance against letting players back on the field after sustaining a concussion? The NFL doesn't hire lawyers whose numbers are available on matchbooks, street benches or the sides of busses. They hire Ivy Leaguers. They did their best to quash Boyd. The best minds (uncluttered by concussions) that the East Coast could provide said, hate to say it, but the NFL didn't have a leg to stand on. In the real world, not the legal world.

On Monday, Boyd became a plaintiff in a new federal lawsuit in Philadelphia seeking $5 million apiece in damage claims by seven former players. Among them was former Viking Paul Krause. His inclusion made it even a little more personal.

One of my favorite perks of the job early on was to be privy to the couples-only conversations that went on. Bob Lurtsema wasn't Bob, he was Bob and Aloise. Paul Krause was Paul and Pam. Wally Hilgenberg was Wally and Mary. Back in the day, there weren't Kardashian weddings that didn't outlast a car repair warranty. For better or worse meant just that. Unfortunately for some of them, the worse outweighed the better over time.

Unfortunately for me (at the time anyway), I didn't swap stories with the boys about "the day." Often I was relegated to hanging out with the wives of the former Vikings players. Hey, I was in the room. I didn't mind at the time. While "the men" talked about Metropolitan Stadium, I heard the wives verbalize their concerns about their husbands. Mary Hilgenberg stood out. She's a widow. Do the math.

In conjunction with the lawsuit brought by not only Boyd, but Krause and, as media reports will be sure to point out, fellow Hall of Famers Lem Barney and Joe DeLamiellere, there are lawsuits involving more than 100 other NFL players waiting to be filed in California, New York, Florida, Texas and whatever other states need to be involved. A floodgate is preparing to open up. The NFL is asking that, at a hearing set for Jan. 26, all of the cases be lumped together into one mega-case.

I hope the NFL and former players agree to hear all the cases together and don't go rogue and fight them individually.

In the strict legal sense, which is how court rulings will be made, the former players don't have their own legal leg to stand on. They collectively bargained an owner-friendly deal that was enforced at the time of employment. The NFL will likely insist on a judicial review rather than a jury trial – where "zany" things can happen. Realistically speaking, former players have right on their side. NFL Films could be become a treasure chest of evidence. But Boyd was right five years ago to push the big dog. The league is willing to quiet the practice of "delay, deny and hope they die." But they still have the power to do it – even with a much more level playing field.

That point was made clear to me by a highest-ranking NFL official who asked the rhetorical question as to whether Boeing owed its earliest employees benefits long after they had left the company and it grew exponentially after that point into a global giant? At a visceral level, I was insulted by the comparison, because planes and helicopters are the product manufactured by Boeing. Human beings are the product manufactured by the NFL.

Are the retired players at the corporate kids' table justified to fight the employer that paved the way to making them who they are identified as years after their exodus from the game? Yes. Is the league within its right to vigorously defend its client in court with the legal system of the United States almost assuredly on their side? Yes. If the former players take a hard-line stance, all they will accomplish in the end are prophetic words uttered by Boyd, one of the named plaintiffs in Monday's suit. If push comes to shove, the NFL will … delay, deny and wait until you die.

A settlement will help the greater good. It won't take away the agony Boyd has felt over the last 25 years. But, like Rosa Parks as a relatively anonymous martyr for a cause that wasn't fully realized until decades later, his contribution won't be forgotten. The NFL can afford to "buy off" former employees. They could use the help. It may be time to make peace (and get a piece) for the former players.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.


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