Casualties of the NFL
Credit: Brian DeMarco speaks with his wife during a congressional hearing on the NFL's system for compensating retired players. Win McNamee / Getty Images
The billion-dollar question, of course, is why. Why have the pleas of DeMarco, Mosley, et al., been met with indifference, even hostility? Why has ex–Pro Bowler Conrad Dobler been denied five times for disability, despite 13 operations on one leg? Why is Willie Wood, the gallant Green Bay safety, unable to pay for his assisted living facility? Why is Mercury Morris, the fleet tailback who fractured his neck as a Miami Dolphin, still fighting in appeals court to overturn the pension board's decision, 20 years later? Why did Johnny Unitas, the onetime face of the NFL, die embittered by the league's callous treatment of his teammates?

Since no one at the union's DC office responded to multiple e-mails and phone calls, the best one can do is sift the facts. Begin with the pension fund, which the players union won after a bitter fight with owners in the '60s. It has grown, like the game, from a shoestring concern to an instrument of vaulting wealth and continues to take in more – tens of millions more – than it pays out in benefits each year. Team owners paid $67.9 million in 2005 to cover the monthly checks for retirees, and the plan, called the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, earns millions more a year in additional interest on its vast investment holdings. From early on a supplement of the plan provided disability funds for injured ex-players. The checks were mostly modest and not easily gotten, particularly if you said your suffering was football-related. Nonetheless, some veterans won, and eked by on sums equal to what they'd get as pensioners.

But all that changed in 1993, with the landmark bargaining agreement between players and owners that made partners of the long-term enemies. The Groom Law Group, a K Street, Washington, outfit, was hired first to write the collective bargaining agreement and later to represent the NFL retirement plan. To the existing bureaucracy – a six-man board of trustees, made up of three reps from owners and players apiece – a screening committee was added with the power to approve or reject claims. Confusing new rules and categories were added, and retired players were reduced to one kind of claim, football degenerative injuries. But unless they could prove that their health woes were caused by football, they stood no chance of ever collecting the $9,000 a month. And most of those who won claims had to win them over and over again, as the board sent them to doctors every second year to recertify their debilities. "That's the trick they pulled on me," says Mosley. "They shopped and shopped till they found a quack doctor who would cross me off the list."

The union says it pays out $20 million a year to 317 disabled ex-players and that many of them get the maximum benefit of $18,600 a month. But tax forms for 2006, the most recent year available, show that only 121 players receive disability, for a total of roughly $9.2 million.

Then there is Upshaw's oft-repeated assertion that the money to pay these claims comes from active players. That's misleading. Every cent of the fund is put in by the owners, although in 2006 active players reduced their annual salaries by an average of $56,000 to contribute to the fund.

"Gene lies and lies, telling the young guys today that they'll have nothing to retire on if he pays us," says Bernard Parrish, the former cornerback for the Cleveland Browns, who's a spry 71 and comfortably fixed, having earned a handsome living building hotels. "It's divide and conquer, and it distracts them from his real job, which is guarding the owners' money."

Because disability claims are protected by privacy laws, the union doesn't disclose who is turned down or why. But the case of Mike Webster, which played out in court, afforded a rare look at its mind-set. Webster, the seemingly immortal Steelers center who made the All-Century team and was the four-time captain of a Super Bowl champion team, retired in 1990 after 17 seasons and immediately presented signs of dementia. As offensive line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, he slept on a bench in the locker room and couldn't recall where he lived. He gave whatever money he had to total strangers, wound up bedding in his truck, and frequently zapped himself with a Taser gun to quell the pain in his back.

"He was drifting for years when I got him to doctors who diagnosed severe TBI (traumatic brain injury)," says Bob Fitzsimmons, a West Virginia lawyer who worked, pro bono, for seven years to bring the case to closure. "The union hired an investigator to try to discredit Mike, brought their own doctor in who agreed with my doctors, and they still denied us three or four times and kept trying to spend him dry. Finally we got to trial and won a huge judgment in district court. But even after the union lost again on appeal, Upshaw told reporters that if the board voted that day, they'd still go against Mike, six to nothing."

Upshaw's confidence in the board is hard to fathom, given that three of its reps are, like Upshaw himself, supposed to put players' interests first. But Upshaw's appointees are all compromised in one way or another. One, Tom Condon, is Upshaw's agent, who negotiated his salary as the head of the union, a sum that wildly exceeds what union chiefs make in other sports. (Upshaw: $6.7 million a year; Billy Hunter: $2.1 in basketball; Donald Fehr: $1 million in baseball.) A second is Jeff Van Note, a broadcaster for the Atlanta Falcons, whose salary is paid by team owner Arthur Blank. The third is Dave Duerson, who pled guilty to beating his wife and throwing her out a hotel door and into a wall.

If that seems a shabby way to staff a pension board, it is very much in keeping with Upshaw's style. From his bellicose beginnings as a union chief in 1983, Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard for the Oakland Raiders, has been dogged by allegations of fiscal mismanagement. As reported by the 'Boston Globe' in 1990, the sloppy bookkeeping included a loan of $100,000 made by the union to Upshaw that prompted a Department of Labor investigation in 1988 (it's illegal for a union to lend any official more than $2,000), but that was later chalked up to back pay, deferred salary, or an advance on his severance.

But the greater outrage, by far, is what he hasn't accomplished. He failed to win guaranteed contracts in bargaining, failed to get his players long-term health insurance, and failed to get as big a percentage of total revenues as union chiefs have in other sports. Baseball, which took in $5.1 billion in revenues in 2006, provides 10-year veterans a maximum annual pension of $180,000; football, by contrast, which grossed $6 billion last season, pays 10-year vets only about $50,000 a year. On a yearly basis, according to figures provided by union critic Parrish, baseball pensions average three times the NFLPA's (roughly $36,000 to a sub-poverty $12,000). Some of the greatest men who ever played the game receive pensions of a couple of hundred dollars a month.

"It's a colossal failure of leadership by Upshaw, who simply refuses to admit he made mistakes," says Cy Smith, who was co-counsel in the Webster case. "He failed to account for the violence of the game by getting insurance and disability, and is afraid to go back to the owners now and say, 'Guess what? I fucked up.'" Jerry Kramer, the Pro Bowl guard who founded Gridiron Greats, adds, "You could almost understand this in 1967, when the TV deal with networks paid $9 million. But the sport grew like crazy and the billions rolled in, while the attitude at the union never changed. It's still 'delay, deny, and hope they die,' which is thinking that I can't fathom."