Insurance 'concern' for locked-out NFL players

Updated: March 18, 2011, 5:22 AM ET
Associated Press

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- Less than a week into the NFL lockout, there are players worried about affording health insurance premiums.

Normally, teams pay for that. As long as the league's first work stoppage since 1987 is in place, though, each player is responsible for arranging and paying for his own coverage. Under the federal COBRA law that allows employees to continue coverage at their own expense, the average monthly fee for a family policy is $2,400, the NFL Players' Association says.

Even a group with an average salary approaching $2 million, and a minimum rookie salary of $320,000 last season, there are those who wonder if they can keep paying for insurance if the lockout drags on.

As players gathered Thursday for their annual convention, NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said the "biggest concern right now" are "some young players who ... may not have the ability to pay COBRA over a long term."

"Is it a ton of players? No. But is it concern enough for us? Absolutely," Mawae said.

He also was frank about this: It'll be tough to keep every single one of his constituents fully informed and fully engaged. The grizzled veterans and the new kids. The millionaires many times over and the players who didn't sock away enough cash.

"We have 1,900 active players, give or take, and you're always going to have guys who either don't know all the issues or don't buy in or really (don't) care," Mawae said. "But the majority of the players understand what the issues are, and they understand that whatever happens, it's going to intimately affect them, their livelihood and their families."

Commissioner Roger Goodell appealed directly to the players Thursday, writing to them to outline the league's last proposal to the union and to caution that "each passing day puts our game and our shared economics further at risk."

Goodell ended the letter by telling players: "I hope you will encourage your union to return to the bargaining table and conclude a new collective bargaining agreement."

Talks between the teams' owners and the NFL Players Association broke off last Friday, the 16th day of federal mediation in Washington. The union dissolved that afternoon, allowing players to file a class-action antitrust suit in federal court. Hours later, owners locked out the players.

"I've told my guys to take the letter and set it on fire. We're not that stupid," said Seattle Seahawks guard Chester Pitts, whose reaction was relayed by NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah.

There were two main sticking points that thwarted negotiations: how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenues, and the players' demand for full financial disclosure by the owners.

"We're not trying to villainize the owners. I think we understand that they have a fiduciary responsibility to generate revenue for the game, and we share in that. We're business partners," NFLPA executive committee member Sean Morey said. "But when you're not treated like a partner and there's a level of -- I guess, yeah, it is distrust ... ."

Asked what the owners' response was when players wanted to know why the league wouldn't turn over all of the financial data the union wanted, Morey replied: "They say that we wouldn't be able to understand it."

And his reaction?

"We're players. We're coachable. Help us understand it," said Morey, a Pro Bowl selection in 2008 who retired last year.

Morey said he thinks the real reason the owners won't reveal full audited financial statements from each team is: "They see how much money they're going to make down the road. ... (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones sat across from us and said he's a perpetual optimist. Dang right he is. Because he understands that the league is more profitable now than ever, and the amount of money that they're able to make down the road is something, I personally believe, they don't want to share that with players."

Players are paid each of the 17 weeks of the regular season and get limited stipends during training camp and the preseason. So no paychecks would be arriving this time of year, anyway.

But with no collective bargaining agreement, any roster or signing bonuses due players are not being paid. They also must shell out money for their workouts -- and for insurance against injury during those sessions because team facilities are off limits.

"As far as what happens when the regular season kicks in and there's a lockout then? Then guys are going to start missing checks," Mawae said. "But our players have known for the last two years that they've been asked to start saving money, cut down on the lifestyle and be ready for the worst-case scenario. And we believe that the majority of our players are."

Still, plenty of financial questions from veterans and young players are being fielded by members of the NFLPA's board of directors -- who were called "player representatives" until last week, when the union said it was decertifying and becoming a trade association.

"We have been reaching out on any questions they have on moving forward on their finances," New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson said. "I am not, by any means, a financial adviser, but we have people who are, and it's important that the information be made available to our guys."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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