Retired NFL players to union: Rift not settled

Retired NFL players seeking better benefits have a message for

new union leader DeMaurice Smith: Their dispute isn’t over.

A vocal group headed by Hall of Famers Joe DeLamielleure and

Elvin Bethea on Tuesday rejected a claim by the executive director

of the NFL Players Association that the union and former players

have settled their differences.

The retired players say Smith’s assurance that benefits will

improve is nothing more than talk until they see proposals. The

ex-players want $100 million added to the pension fund to help NFL

alums, particularly those with debilitating injuries.

The group spoke with reporters in Irving, Texas, not far from a

meeting of NFL owners.

“Today, we put the NFL Players Association on notice,” said

former Buffalo defensive back Jeff Nixon.

The former players warned that if Smith assumes there isn’t a

divide, owners will exploit the differences in labor negotiations.

Smith, who declared the rift over last week during a speech in

Charlotte, N.C., is among many who expect a lockout when the

current labor deal expires after the 2010 season.

Two NFL strikes in the 1980s were notable for players crossing

the picket line, which hurt the union in negotiations. The former

players warned Tuesday of a replay.

“The union needs to do a better job of communicating with all

players,” Nixon said. “They’ve created some divisions. We don’t

need these divisions. We need to be united.”

George Atallah, a union spokesman, said the association had no

comment.

Former Dallas Cowboys tight end Billy Joe DuPree said the former

players need a voice at the bargaining table. Without it, he said,

pensions that run as low as a few hundred dollars a month will

continue.

“We’ve got to take whatever crumbs that are thrown out,” said

DuPree, who has co-written a book with labor attorney Spencer Kopf

called “The Unbroken Line” that tells the story of players they

consider forgotten in the modern NFL.

“We’re not asking for the NFL to give handouts,” DuPree said.

“We’re asking for opportunities for guys to be

self-sufficient.”

Kopf said Smith has signaled that he is an extension of the Gene

Upshaw era by leaving in place executives responsible for a

negligence lawsuit won by former players against the union.

“You look at the structure and how it’s supposed to protect the

players and frankly … it just doesn’t do it,” said Kopf, who

played a role in settling the 1982 strike.

Nixon said the former players want a better accounting of how

the marketing arm of the union decides which players get called on

for appearances, and why executive salaries in the organization run

as high as seven figures. Outspoken players are passed over for

chances to sign autographs and be more visible, Nixon claimed.

“If you’ve been a critic of the union, they can lock you out of

that country club,” Nixon said.