Mary Hilgenberg was at lunch with some fellow wives of former Minnesota Vikings players recently, the lone widow at a table of a half-dozen women.
Her husband, legendary Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, died at age 66 after suffering from ALS. While he was eventually diagnosed with the debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — possibly from the physical punishment he sustained during his 16 NFL seasons — Mary Hilgenberg is currently dealing with the implications of when, not how, he died.
Hilgenberg’s death fell into a gap in the new $620 million legacy fund, an oversight that excluded about 320 widows of players who played in the NFL before 1993 and died before the league’s current collective bargaining agreement was ratified last August.
“They and all their husbands are going to be taken care of,” Hilgenberg told FOXSports.com. “I couldn’t help and think as I was sitting there I was the only widow that wasn’t going to get the same help. Something seems to be unfair about it. Football is a billion-dollar industry.
What sounded like an easy fix — the NFL and the NFL Players Association coming up with the $14 million to pay the omitted widows — has turned into one of the two entities’ many squabbles, including a lawsuit filed last week by the union accusing NFL owners of collusion.
The owners voted last week to pay 51 percent of the $14 million, and the league said it would begin cutting checks to the widows retroactively to last August. Under the legacy fund, former players or their widows would get at least $108 more per month for each credited season for players who retired before 1993. A new $600 per month pension minimum was also established.
"We have had discussions with the union about it,” NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash said last week. “While those discussions have been inconclusive, the ownership decided it would go ahead on its own and provide the benefit to the widows and pay the same share for doing so that we are paying for the legacy fund. . . . We hope the union will come along and fund the balance of it, but at least they won’t be sitting around getting nothing and looking for this seemingly inconclusive dicker to go on and on. The ownership were quite supportive of taking that step.
The widows, still angered by what they see as a slight in the CBA, appear to hold the NFLPA and its leader, executive director DeMaurice Smith, largely responsible for the stalled negotiations.
"I think he’s hung up in the semantics of his job,” said Sylvia Mackey, whose husband, Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, died a month before the CBA was ratified. “I have nothing disrespectful or bad to say about De’. I just wish he had more compassion or understanding. I don’t know who he’s trying to please. Who is he going to hurt by coming up with that 49 percent?”
The union has no problem with the league fronting the money for the widows, but NFLPA leadership doesn’t like that it’s coming from player fines — not out of the owners’ pockets.
“The NFL, therefore, is asking the players to fund 100 percent of the widows and survivors benefit out of the players’ share of revenues,” according to a petition spearheaded by the NFLPA, signed by several former players and obtained by FOXSports.com.
Nolan Harrison, senior director of former player services for the NFLPA, told FOXSports.com in an email that the union doesn’t want to backtrack from the gains made under the current CBA.
"The legacy fund is the first time in history that former player benefits have come from outside the salary cap,” Harrison wrote. “Our entire player community fought for and won this landmark advancement. This new issue of taking care of former player families is about making sure we progress and hold management accountable for their commitment to those families. To say that fulfilling their obligation will come from fine money, which is really player money, is not good enough."
The NFL, however, said its proposal would use part of the balance remaining from players fines from 2006 to ’10 to cover the cost of aiding the now-excluded widows, a person with a knowledge of the negotiations told FOXSports.com.
The league has denied using such money would violate the CBA or result in underfunding of the player assistance trust and other funds set up to aid former players.
Just how much is in that fund of player fines is also a contentious issue, according to documents obtained by FOXSports.com. The NFLPA contends there is $3.36 million in unaccounted funds, something the league has consistently disputed.
"We provided an accounting in 2011 and again on May 7 of this year," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
However the two sides get there, Mackey said, the process has already been draining.
“It’s a disgraceful shame we’ve had to be dragged through this,” Mackey said. “We have been both dragged through the mud and raked over the coals. What do we care where the money comes from? There is money there.”
Senior NFL writer Alex Marvez contributed to this report.