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Opinion: NFL must address Hall of Famers’ wives’ call to increase pensions

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks to reporters during the NFL's spring meetings in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 20, 2015.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks to reporters during the NFL's spring meetings in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP

Their 26 husbands helped build the NFL into the $11.2 billion behemoth it is today, and now the women want some of that wealth to make it back to their men.

In March, the wives of these Pro Football Hall of Famers wrote a letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell. They asked for an audience to discuss possible pension bumps for old-timers who played the game when it became the most popular spectator sport in America.

Maybe they should have sent Goodell a stamped, self-addressed envelope. For some reason, he never got back to them.

“That seems wrong,” said Gerri DeLamielleure, whose husband, Joe, played 13 years for the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns. “It seems wrong when you play in a sport that is a multibillion-dollar industry and they can’t give you a livable pension.”

Hard-core football fans know Gerri’s husband as the guy who played guard with Reggie McKenzie on the offensive line that in 1973 made O.J. Simpson the NFL’s first 2,000-yard runner.

Most fans also will recognize the other last names on the letter, including those of Fred Biletnikoff, the Raiders wide receiver with the stickum hands who starred on a Super Bowl championship team, and Bob Lilly, the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle who played his position as well as anybody. Other petitioners include the spouses of 49ers defensive back Jimmy Johnson and linebacker Dave Wilcox, late NFL greats John Mackey and Merlin Olsen and former stars Dan Fouts, Leroy Kelly and Dan Dierdorf.

The DeLamielleures have been in the news in recent years as activists on behalf of older players. They live in Charlotte, N.C., and they’re doing OK – Gerri, 63, is a registered nurse at a pediatric clinic, and Joe, 64, works part time as a greeter for the Seneca Niagara Casino at its Rich Stadium box for Bills home games.

No, they’re not broke. They are just mad – at Goodell for not getting back to the wives on the pension letter, and at the National Football League Players Association for signing off on a 2011 agreement that cuts the old guys off from future cost-of-living increases. The deal left DeLamielleure, for example, with an annual NFL pension of about $28,000 a year, before taxes, and with no medical insurance.

Two years ago, DeLamielleure had his brain scanned at UCLA and was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy – not surprising for a man who slammed his head into other men an estimated 225,000 times in the NFL trenches. DeLamielleure sounded fine in a telephone interview. He said he works out every day and doesn’t drink or smoke. A Catholic, DeLamielleure said he goes to church almost every day and that he is deeply devoted to his wife of 43 years, their six kids and their 11 grandchildren.

“All the women want is the same pensions as the current players,” DeLamielleure said. “All they want is to talk to Goodell and (NFLPA president) DeMaurice Smith.”

DeLamielleure started 175 of the 185 games he played. He still loves football and he gives credit to the league for making it safer. He likes that the owners got rid of the old brand of AstroTurf that basically had the players beating the hell out of each other on slabs of concrete covered by a ratty carpet. And he appreciated that rule makers banned the head-slap. All those whacks to the helmet, he said, cost him most of the hearing in his left ear.

“The things they did for the betterment of the game, they did it because why?” DeLamielleure asked. “They did it because the old guys were complaining.”

In an email, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello did not address the wives’ letter. But Aiello did say the league put $600 million into a “legacy fund” that was part of the 2011 deal with the union.

“We are not aware of any other collective bargaining agreement in any other businesses that has improved the pensions of former employees,” Aiello wrote. “We have many other benefits and programs for retired players and will continue to look for ways to support them and their families.”

For players who retired before 1993, base pensions are stuck at a “benefit credit” of $250 a month multiplied by the number of years they played.

The agreement nearly doubled DeLamielleure’s pension. But that’s it for the foreseeable future for him and hundreds of other players in his legacy category who retired before 1993. Their base pensions are stuck at a “benefit credit” of $250 a month multiplied by the number of years they played.

Current players will receive a base credit of $660 a month. The figure increases to $760 in 2018.

Congratulations to them on that. But as Joe DeLamielleure said, the NFL is “a monster league, a money machine.” Goodell made $44 million last year, according to some media reports. Now the commissioner needs to call the wives and figure out a way to get more pension money to their husbands who helped make the league what it is today.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie as playing for the Buffalo Bills in the early 1970s. It was a different player with the same name who played for the Bills.