Goodell addresses retirees' pensions

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reassured retired players that their pensions and disability benefits would not be reduced in a labor dispute next year, refuting statements made by the NFL Players Association.

In a letter to the NFL Alumni Board of Directors on Wednesday, Goodell wrote that claims made by the union -- including NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith -- that retired players have the potential to be affected next year "have no basis in fact."

"In all my conversations with DeMaurice Smith, he has never raised the subject with me," Goodell wrote in response to questions raised by NFL Alumni board members. "Had he done so, my answer would have been unequivocal -- there will be no reduction in pension or disability payments to retired players during 2010."

In a statement released by the NFLPA, Smith responded by challenging the NFL to guarantee paying benefits beyond 2010.

"If these benefits are now being guaranteed for one year by the NFL, which they currently are not, then that's a win for the players," NFLPA benefits director Miki Yaras-Davis said.

Portions of Goodell's letter were released by NFL Alumni and Fourth and Goal, an independent retired-player advocacy group. Goodell was responding to concerns raised by the groups' directors after NFLPA members stated retired players would take a hit in an uncapped year.

Smith had told a group of retired players at a meeting in Las Vegas in June that their benefits would be affected.

In the letter, Goodell said that since 2007, owners consistently have agreed not to reduce funding to retired players if a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached and results in the salary cap being lifted next season.

The debate is viewed as a sign both the league and the union are courting the support of retired players in negotiations to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

Numerous former players have had a long-standing rift with the NFLPA, believing their needs were dismissed by former executive director Gene Upshaw, who died last August. Smith has made strides to ease tensions and address retired players' concerns since he was elected in March.

Still, retired players are taking sides.

NFL Alumni and Fourth and Goal board member Jerry Kramer welcomed Goodell's letter, noting it validates the trust he's had in working with the commissioner for the past three years.

"To hear that was not truth was both good news for the guys on disability and pensions, and it was good news for me because I have a lot of reasons to trust the commissioner," said Kramer, the former Packers offensive lineman. "And this just solidified my position there. It's a big announcement for me."

Kramer said the NFL, under Goodell, is contributing up to $9 million more toward retired player benefits than it previously did.

As for the NFLPA, Kramer questioned whether the union was using this issue to gain support from retired players in labor talks.

"You've got to assume this is the first shot in the collective bargaining process," he said.

Hall of Famer Mike Ditka said it's simply about doing what's right.

"The outcome of labor negotiations should not directly or indirectly impact the retirees pension and disabilities in 2010 and beyond. They have already suffered from being on the short end of the stick," said Ditka, who is also the chairman of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.

Robert Grant, a former linebacker who played for the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins from 1968-72, referred to Goodell's letter as "gamesmanship by the owners" in a bid to hurt the union.

Grant considers himself an independent activist and said he has dropped his NFL Alumni and NFLPA membership.

"I urge players to think for themselves and sit in the middle," Grant said. "Nobody's jumping up and down, because all of this is just posturing because they plan to break that union."

As for the NFLPA, Kramer questioned whether the union was using this issue to gain support from retired players in labor talks.

"You've got to assume this is the first shot in the collective bargaining process," Kramer said.

The NFL is in the midst of negotiating a new labor agreement with the union after the owners opted out of the current deal last year.

Fourth and Goal and NFL Alumni board member Harry Carson was also pleased Goodell cleared up retired players' concerns.

"I am very happy to see [the] commissioner step forward to eliminate any misstatements or rumor floating out there that could be used in upcoming CBA negotiations," Carson said. "This should put the minds of retired players and families at ease."