Roger Goodell is a benevolent man. Last season, while negotiating his own new salary, he demanded lifetime health insurance for himself and his family—with a wink.
Last month, a group of Hall of Famers, led by Eric Dickerson, took the hint and released a letter demanding similar benefits from the NFL, including a $300k-per-year salary and lifetime health care. The 300k got the most coverage, but the lifetime health care, I believe, is the more urgent matter. For the sake of this argument, I will call it Total Health Care.
Total Health Care is the logical progression in NFL player health and safety, the umbrella under which all players—current and former—can get treatment. It also may be the most effective way for the league to stave off future lawsuits. Players sue the league because they feel abandoned. The millions of dollars people think you have is gone. The health care people assume you have is gone. The pension people assume you have was taken out early to pay for the procedures that the health care you didn’t have wouldn’t cover. The benefits that are available are wrapped in so much red tape that many former players just give up, despite being dogged by a persistent and multi-formed physical decline.
But this is obviously not an issue that tickles the media’s mustache. As much as they pretend to cherish the old-timers, their idolatry is calculated to elevate the legend over the person. That’s how you sustain the game and keep it thriving. They’ll jerk you off as long as you’re mythologizing your time in the sport, but if you stand in front of the gravy train, they’ll put a bullet in your head. Even if you are Eric Dickerson.
This soft pitch from Goodell will instead fall to NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who controls the narrative for the NFLPA. Though he represents a stable of hungry lions who are paid to attack one another, Smith has approached Collective Bargaining like a lamb, pouring the narrative into tea cups and knocking politely at the agreed-upon time. This isn’t going to get it done.
Mr. Smith needs to put things in perspective for the active players in the NFL: You will be former players for much longer than you’ll be current players. And the violent realities of your football lives will follow you forever. You need this, he should say, and make Total Health Care a main prong in the union’s Collective Bargaining strategy in 2020.
Navigating my health care has been the hardest part of life after the NFL. Mostly because, when you’re a player, there is nothing to navigate. The NFL itself is a health care system. Every day, you stand in the middle of a circle of specialists, all of them studying your every move, collaborating with one another to optimize your performance. It is your job to heal.
And through all of it, nary a health insurance form or signature is needed. Nor a phone call. Or an email. Or the setting up of an appointment. Or the calling of a new doctor. Or the researching of a specialist. Or an explanation of benefits. Nor of deductibles. Not a single iota of the red tape of modern health care is explained or introduced to the athlete.
In the NFL, the medical professionals simply watch the patient and wait for him to drop, then they treat him on the spot and nurse him all the way back to full health. Ding! Fresh out of the oven. It is the only way to sustain football as a sport, because the game cripples those who play it, and unless you are physically holding them together, they unravel. At some point, for many players, their bodies get so broken and misaligned that the effort to keep them healthy is too much, and the player is cut from the team.
We tend to mourn this moment because he lost his job, but a more devastating severing is happening. At a time when he needs it most, he is losing his medical protection. He is pulled out of the medicine bubble, and right then, his health begins to deteriorate. This is the Grand Failure of the system, in my opinion. The cliff that every player falls off of. There is no parachute. Just an empty trash bag and an insurance card.
Upon leaving the NFL for good, vested veterans (players with four accredited seasons) are given five years of post-career health coverage on the same Cigna plan that they had while playing, and the coverage is excellent. You can pretty much see any doctor you’d like, at any time—except, that is, for the doctors who have been treating you all along and who have a dictionary-thick health file, containing the results of every blood test, medication, injury and check-up you have had in the last 10 years. Those doctors will be busy now. You’ll have to find some new ones.
For this reason, the excellent insurance is rarely used. The first five years after I left the NFL, I didn’t come out of my basement. Saying hello to a stranger was a monumental task. I was so sick of doctors. I had money in the bank. A propensity to self-medicate. And no clue what to do. So I disappeared. By the time I came up for air, the coverage had run out and my football money was nearly gone.
The average NFL career is under four years—shorter, you’ll notice, than what it takes to fully vest and earn that half-decade of post-career coverage. I played six years and left with under a million dollars in the bank. I had purchased a home in suburban Denver. I also bought a car my rookie year. Plus I lost six figures in a Ponzi scheme. Other than that, I made no big purchases. I simply kept living the same way I always had, and one day, the money was gone.
Football money would be easy to save if you had a skill teed up that would immediately start earning you money in the real world. The problem is that the system prevents that skill from being developed. You leave the NFL with no other skills. The sport requires too much time and too much obedience to prepare for anything else. This begins at many colleges, where the physical and mental demands of football leave no room for real-world pursuits. And if a player is able to build any academic momentum, it hits a wall the instant he gets to the NFL.
And so, let’s say you are lucky enough to leave the NFL with one million dollars in the bank (which is the exception). That is a good deal of money, but you have no leads on how to make more. After being paid well in the NFL, the prospect of taking a new job for under six figures is laughable. Of course, as two years turns into three, four, five, then six and seven years, it doesn’t seem so laughable anymore. Cold reality sets in as your bank account ticks down. Meanwhile, your old football life starts to feel like a dream—but a dream like The Matrix, in which you wake up bloody. My joints when I get out of bed in the morning sound like pouring milk into a bowl of Rice Krispies. My shitty right ankle is extra loud on the way down the stairs. My socks are hard to put on because my hips are getting tight. My right leg is always shorter than the left so my back is always locked. Acid reflux is messing up my vocal cords. Jaw is sore some mornings. Nightmares.
This is why the transition from football player to civilian life is so difficult. In addition to trying to learn some new skill after “retiring” (football players retire the way JFK retired from politics), we must now do alone what it used to take a village of highly trained specialists to accomplish—and even they had trouble. To manage the deterioration without daily access to a single system of care—an umbrella with an orthopedist, a physician, a gastroenterologist, a joint-surgeon, a nutritionist, a psychologist, a neurologist, dentist, acupuncturist, yoga instructor, etc.—is difficult. Add to that the paperwork it takes to do it, and we simply can’t manage it. Not because we’re stupid, but because they kept us away from books. They kept us away from the Language of Life, because it was a “distraction,” and now a simple form may take an hour or two to comprehend. Especially with these headaches.
So we don’t even bother, content to endure feeling like shit. The catch—and the reason why the fellas are asking for 300k—is that we must be healthy to have the patience and energy to find new work. To make yourself employable, you can’t be dragging yourself around like a corpse, which many of us are.
Surely, an NFL Medical Network can be created which would allow former players to access team doctors and NFL facilities in 32 locations, or to access the private practices of NFL doctors, who have an intimate understanding of the challenges we face and can share information with each other the same way they do when an active player is traded to a new team, with the two medical staffs collaborating ahead of the player’s arrival. This would answer all of our burning questions and would lead to a better quality of life for every one of the league’s former heroes—men we all claim to love and respect.
But who would pay for it? This will, of course, be the hard part. But I believe it would be cheaper than expected, largely because many former players won’t go to the doctors no matter what. They are unreachable. Total Health Care could be funded in its entirety by the NFL, but would likely take a good-faith investment by the players union as well. Whether by increasing union dues or diverting existing revenue streams, the NFLPA might consider realigning its values with those of its constituents—past and present—and not the fat-and-happy opulence of the union’s D.C. headquarters, which has become complacent and content with the lucrative status quo.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment would be for the doctors who treat the players. The NFL has always put an asterisk next to the Hippocratic Oath, allowing doctors to make reckless decisions for the good of the team. Doctors go along with it because they never have to clean up the mess. The player is simply shipped out. Total Health Care would hold doctors accountable to their patients. You break it, you buy it.
As of today, though the league and the union may argue otherwise, there is no network. There is no collaboration. There is only another email address and another form, then another number to call to schedule a talk with a volunteer who may be able to point me in the right direction, but will probably have to call me back. And so I hang up the phone and smoke a joint instead, hoping to find my own path to homeostasis.
Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He also co-hosts the Caveman Poet Society podcast with former NFL offensive lineman, Eben Britton. It is available on iTunes. He lives in L.A.