NFL Players Say Health Care Is Big Issue in CBA Dispute
"A couple of players whose wives are pregnant have asked me if they should induce labor before the lockout so they'd be covered," Fujita said. "So, I talk all the time about the hypocrisy of the league on health and safety. So I'd say to them, if you really do care about health and safety, please, prove it to us."
The NFLPA has called upon the league to guarantee that players' health coverage would be continued in the event of a lockout. The league has declined to do that and responded by saying all players would be eligible for COBRA benefits during a lockout. But players are concerned about the high premiums and are therefore pushing to get a new deal done before the current one expires March 4.
"Why wait until the last minute? Why procrastinate any longer?" Fujita asked. "I think the owners are okay with letting this thing run for a while and trying to squeeze us into doing a deal that's unfavorable to the players, and that's not fair."
The union has been saying for nearly two years now that it believes the owners intend to lock out the players in 2011 in order to secure a new deal that's more favorable to their side. As evidence, they have cited TV contracts that are guaranteed to pay off even if no games are played next year. The union is currently challenging those TV deals in a special master hearing, and expects to hear a decision on that by the end of the month.
If the special master rules in the union's favor (and the league doesn't win on appeal), then approximately $4.5 billion in TV money would be held in escrow until a new CBA is reached, rather than being available to the owners to help them survive a lockout. The union believes a victory in that case would help push the owners to the negotiating table because it would reduce their ability to fund a lockout.
"It sure sounds like a war chest to me," Fujita said. "The major networks are basically funding this lockout, and that's disappointing. We're the ones doing interviews with them after games, taking time away from our families and doing all of that for free and they're funding the lockout. So that's disappointing."
Fujita and Foxworth were asked many questions about the special master's hearing and the amount of time players have spent on Capitol Hill lobbying members of Congress during the current dispute. Foxworth said he still hoped a deal could get worked out at the bargaining table the old-fashioned way, but that the legal and congressional maneuvers were avenues they couldn't close off.
"The most important thing that can happen for us on Capitol Hill is the leveling of the playing field," Foxworth said. "The NFL has been lobbying on Capitol Hill for years now, and it's important that they see our faces too and realize there's another team playing in this game. We've been beating the drum up there on the Hill about how important these games are to these cities, and if you're going to lock people out and put people out of work, you'd better have a really good reason."
Foxworth and Fujita said part of the players' lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill have focused on the local businesses near stadiums in towns like Cleveland and Baltimore that would be affected by the cancellation of NFL games next year. But most of their focus is clearly on using these negotiations to secure improvements in health and safety for the players themselves. For example, they said there was no way the players would consider the owners' idea to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 unless the owners made concessions on issues like post-career health care coverage.
"It's pretty tough to get health insurance after you've played six, eight, 10 years in the league," Foxworth said. "It's pretty tough to find somebody who will insure you if you're that beat up."
Currently, the players said, the NFL extends health benefits for five years beyond the end of the player's career. The players would want more years in exchange for playing two more games per year during their careers.
"Guys I talk to who've been retired 10, 11 years, a lot of those guys say they didn't have any issues during the first five years after they retired," Fujita said. "Things like major knee replacements and surgeries like that, those come up later, after you've been retired for a while. And those aren't necessarily covered."
The league has described its proposal as an "enhanced season" and said it derives from fan dissatisfaction about the poor quality of preseason games. They say the season would still be 20 total games, as the number of preseason games would drop from four to two while the number of regular-season games increased from 16 to 18. But the players point out (correctly) that preseason games don't equal regular-season games in terms of intensity and the impact on the body.
"Maybe two or three years ago, people were unsure about the repercussions playing professional football had for your body," Foxworth said. "But at this point, it's clear that it's pretty bad for your brain and pretty bad for your body."
For that reason, the players want health and safety issues to be a big part of the negotiations on a new agreement. But as of right now, they don't seem very optimistic that a new agreement can be in place before the current one expires in March. Fujita cited a recent interview Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did with "60 Minutes" in which Jones was asked if a lockout would be "disastrous" for the league and said no.
"That's one of the most irresponsible things I've heard throughout this whole process," Fujita said.
But if Jones' opinion reflects that of the owners as a whole, that means they're willing to have a lockout in order to secure a deal they feel is favorable to them. The lockout would start in early March, and if it continued through the summer, it could mean games would be canceled next season. If that happens, the players want the fans to know who they believe is at fault and who isn't.
"I hope people will see it for what it is -- a lockout," Foxworth said. "We're standing at the front door, trying to get in and go to work, and they won't let us in."