NFL players question alumni group
Jimmie Giles is a physical shell of the strapping tight end who reached four Pro Bowls in 13 NFL seasons.
The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer standout’s back problems are so severe he has undergone 20 epidural treatments. Doctors fear additional procedures could affect the integrity of Giles’ spinal fluid.
His efforts to avoid major back surgery have coincided with a struggle between the NFL and its players association about health benefits for former players — an issue seized upon by the NFL Alumni Association two years ago when that group began trying to expand its reach from charitable causes to advocacy for the league’s retirees.
But, Giles said, just like the numbing injections he has received to alleviate pain, the NFLAA, under the leadership of former New York Giants great George Martin, has proved equally ineffective in finding a more permanent fix to the problems faced by Giles and some of his peers.
“I don’t know what George’s agenda was,” Giles, 57, recently told FOXSports.com. “If it was to help players, he hasn’t done a very good job.
“He has the commissioner’s ear. He could present things to (NFL Commissioner Roger) Goodell and let him know what’s truly happening to former players. He can show them that the NFL and NFLPA aren’t doing enough to help players who are dealing with disabilities.”
To exclusively blame Martin for the sparring that continues between ailing former players and the NFL about how best to handle post-football health care might not be fair. But a FOXSports.com investigation into Martin’s tenure as NFLAA president and executive director revealed the organization is foundering because of apparent mismanagement.
Among the problems:
• Already facing financial problems before Martin’s hiring in October 2009, the NFLAA continues to struggle despite having received more than $4 million in NFL loans. The most recent was a $1 million loan that kept the NFLAA solvent. Martin oversees the NFLAA’s finances despite having filed for personal bankruptcy three times.
• Some alumni chapters have fallen dormant, creating a trickle-down effect on outreach programs for former players that the NFLAA was supposed to help lead. At least one chapter is thinking about splitting from the NFLAA, which has required more financial support from the chapters and, according to one of them, been slow to distribute reimbursement checks from an NFLAA-controlled fund. The Seattle chapter recently canceled its annual golf tournament, which usually is its top fund-raiser.
• Martin has funneled NFLAA contracts to those close to him, which is a potential violation of the group’s ethics code. Martin’s actions include the donation of NFLAA-allocated Super Bowl tickets to his own nonprofit group run by his son, using the NFLAA brand to promote fund-raising for another Martin-affiliated charity (Journey for 9/11) and tapping an event-planning company run by his wife and daughter-in-law. Another NFLAA executive hired by Martin has entered into a business arrangement with a company controlled by her father.
Martin declined numerous FOXSports.com requests for a telephone or in-person interview. Via email, Martin defended his NFLAA stewardship and the strides made because of the group’s “tireless advocacy.”
“In its short existence in the modern era, the association has played a critical role in securing a number of important programs and benefits for retired NFL players,” Martin wrote.
Martin, 58, was selected to lead the NFLAA from a list of 140 candidates compiled by a headhunting firm. He was considered a strong candidate because of the public reputation he had built. The loquacious Martin aced a job interview that was conducted after the list was narrowed to about 30 candidates, Lee Nystrom, a former Green Bay Packers center and search-committee member, told FOXSports.com.
Not only was Martin a stalwart defensive end with the Giants (1975-88), he received the NFL Players Association’s highest honor — the Byron “Whizzer” White Award — for “demonstrating outstanding service to one’s team and community” in 1986.
Martin remained active in charitable causes post-football, including his heavily publicized Journey for 9/11 cross-country walk that helped raise about $3 million for New York City rescue workers who began to suffer from respiratory ailments. Martin’s online biography lists business experience with companies that included Tanagraphics and AXA Equitable.
Former Giants linebacker Harry Carson — a Hall of Fame player who cofounded a charity (Minority Athletes Networking) with Martin — campaigned for his former teammate to get the NFLAA job, Nystrom said.
Other retired players involved in the hiring process included Baltimore Colts defensive back Bruce Laird, New York Giants running back Randy Minniear and San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Ben Lynch.
Shortly after Martin accepted the position, Goodell had him speak on behalf of the NFLAA at a league owners meeting in October 2009.
“I think it’s a great development that George is now in place and running the organization,” Goodell said at a news conference. “I think he will do a terrific job.”
The final NFLAA candidates were supposed to go through a background check, but Nystrom said the committee never knew about Martin’s three bankruptcies. A document produced by headhunting firm Spencer Stuart backs that claim.
According to documents and federal tax records obtained by FOXSports.com, Martin has filed for two Chapter 11 reorganizations and one Chapter 7 liquidation since 1996. The most recent case was not closed until 2005.
In total, Martin sought protection from $416,450 of debt. Martin refused to address the reasons behind the bankruptcies.
“I will only reiterate that this matter is not relevant to (NFLAA) and my background was fully vetted prior to my being hired,” Martin wrote to FOXSports.com.
Without knowledge of Martin’s personal financial issues, the NFLAA gave Martin broad power under a contract offer tendered to him in October 2009. (Martin currently draws a $270,000 salary and is eligible for bonuses that can significantly increase his pay.) The offer sheet obtained by FOXSports.com stated that Martin “will oversee operations, member and partner communication, membership growth and charitable giving and community outreach strategies.” Martin was given “full financial accountability for the organization” as well as responsibility for planning and managing the annual budget.
Martin, though, has struggled to maneuver the organization through expansion of its original mission.
The NFLAA was created as a partnership between two separate groups involved with retired players (NFL Alumni and Fourth and Goal). NFL Alumni originally was formed in 1967 as a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based group seeking benefit packages for former players. Nine years later, NFL Alumni became a tax-exempt charity that focused on fund-raising for children and community charities. The group also operated a “dire need” fund for members with financial problems. That fund currently is overseen by a group of NFL owners.
The NFL Alumni’s 15-member board of directors voted to merge with the Fourth and Goal organization headed by Laird. The shift coincided with Frank Krauser’s retirement as NFL Alumni president/CEO in May 2009. Krauser was facing heat because NFL Alumni, according to its own 2009 documents, had allocated an “insufficient amount of funds” to the Dire Needs Trust created to serve as a bridge for applicants without enough money to cover medical costs.
The merger also came amid heavy NFL pressure for NFL Alumni to become an advocacy group for former players as collective-bargaining agreement negotiations began heating up with the NFLPA, which has its own programs for retirees. With more than 3,000 members at that point, the NFL Alumni Association had amassed by far the largest retired player roster of any organization.
Well aware that other advocacy groups and former players, on an individual basis, would seek representation in labor talks and the NFLPA’s own involvement with retired players, the NFL wanted affiliation with an association with which it could build close ties. Goodell said NFL owners “identified the NFL Alumni as the entity they wanted to get behind.”
Goodell also stressed that the NFLAA would be an independent organization, although the league has subsidized the group with funding since its involvement. The vision that the NFLAA would eventually be able to repay the league loans and become self-sustaining hasn’t come to pass.
The NFLAA had $861,520 in cash and short-term investments when Martin took over in 2009. It was in the red at the end of November 2011 and would have fallen more than $1 million in debt by February, internal NFLAA documents show, had the NFL not stepped in with more funding. A document obtained by FOXSports.com details the $2.35 million loans the NFLAA will have received from May 2011 through June 2012, although it does not take into account the most recent $1 million loan made in December, according to a source with knowledge of the transfer. (NFL officials have declined to offer specifics about their financial support of the NFLAA.) The NFLAA also received a $1 million loan soon after its new mandate to aid retired players was launched in 2009.
League affiliation of any sort is a strong point of contention among some retirees who strongly believe the NFL isn’t looking out for their best interests despite the money being funneled toward addressing former player issues.
“As a matter of public record, the NFL has provided funding,” Martin said. “While the funding provided by the NFL was essential in the formation of the association, the NFL has never had or exerted influence over the operations of the organization. The association is overseen exclusively by former NFL players, making it the only established organization that is solely accountable to, managed by and operated in support of retired players.”
The NFL and NFLPA allocated $1 billion in additional benefits toward retired player needs in the new 10-year CBA approved in July 2011. Of that, $620 million is earmarked for a “legacy fund’ that includes pension boosts for qualified retirees, particularly those who played before 1993 without the backing of a CBA. The NFLAA claims it was “instrumental” in pushing for that increase.
Martin was one of more than a half-dozen leaders of retired player groups who met with the league about how the $620 million would be distributed. Martin, though, never became a prominent figure in last summer’s labor talks despite repeated efforts to land a spot at the negotiating table.
Although the program was founded by the NFL, the NFLAA has taken credit for spearheading efforts that established a long-term care insurance program with more than 1,200 applications approved for former players and their wives. Martin wrote that the Transamerica NFL Retiree Long Term Care Insurance Program also has created a streamlined approval process to make everything easier.
However, Nystrom and other former players interviewed by FOXSports.com have seen no evidence of such aid to former players.
Laird and attorney John Hogan, who filed lawsuits on behalf of Giles and other players whose medical claims were denied by the NFL and NFLPA, said they pitched Martin in July 2010 about having the NFLAA provide members with detailed information about how to apply for benefits. Laird and Hogan said that, despite Martin’s initial interest, such an initiative and a proposed disability advisory committee never materialized.
“He loved it,” Laird said of Martin. “He asked John to get attorneys across the country involved to help these former players. Then nothing. Weeks then months went by and nothing ever happened.”
Martin called the efforts by Laird and Hogan “valuable,” but the NFLAA decided it was more advantageous to lobby for more benefits in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Laird’s group, Fourth and Goal, has since seperated from the NFLAA and is again independent.
Among his accomplishments, Martin points to the NFL Alumni Career and Business program, which, he said, has been accessed by more than 50 retired players. The NFLAA also recently completed an “NFL 12 days of Christmas” initiative where some disadvantaged veterans received up to $1,000 from the dire needs fund.
No matter what Martin has accomplished, Nystrom said there are some retirees who will feel it isn’t enough. That is based upon the belief the NFL and NFLPA owes them big for building the game into an industry now generating more than $10 billion in annual revenue with an even rosier financial outlook.
“I’m not sure that’s a battle that can be won,” said Nystrom, 60, who spent two seasons (1972-73) with the Packers. “No matter how much money you throw at it, it will never be enough for certain people.”
Nystrom cites the fact that about half of the NFL’s roughly 13,000 retired players are vested (four credited seasons before 1993; three credited seasons after 1993).
“When you give a dollar to a non-vested player, you are taking a dollar away from the vested player,” Nystrom said. “There’s just no good answer.”
The fact that Martin appears to have used his NFLAA office to benefit family members and his outside charity endeavors adds further fuel to the fire. Retired players advocate Dave Pear already was critical of Martin’s job performance before told about his potential conflict of interest.
“George Martin hasn’t done squat except take care of himself and those around him,” said Pear, a former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman who has undergone almost a dozen surgeries since he retired after the 1981 Super Bowl.
Another major concern for Martin: declining NFLAA membership. There were 3,015 former NFL players enrolled in 2010, a drop of 747 members from 2006. Martin told FOXSports.com that membership stands at “3,500 retired NFL players,” although several people close to the NFLAA who were interviewed by FOXSports.com questioned that total.
One of those players no longer part of NFLAA membership is retired quarterback Dan Pastorini. He has refused to sign a “group licensing agreement” (GLA) that would allow the NFLAA to market his image. The NFLAA has cited the GLA and need for mass number of retirees, especially prominent former players, to sign the agreement as a critical part of its fund-raising plan for financial independence from the NFL.
“I was kind of shocked by that,” Pastorini told FOXSports.com. “I wanted to pay my dues, even though I don’t agree with a lot of things Martin is trying to do. I still wanted to remain a member in good standing. What’s his motivation? Maybe you have to look at who’s paying his salary: the NFL.”
Martin wrote that the NFLAA has reached out to Pastorini and said agreeing to the GLA is not required. He added the organization has altered the website to make that clarification.
Although exact membership dues totals were not available for 2011, the NFLAA collected $80,432 in dues from May 2011 through September 2011, according to a document sent to the board of directors in November and obtained by FOXSports.com. The NFLAA had projected to raise $137,820 during that same period.
Multiple sources confirmed to FOXSports.com that the lower totals are the result of a dip in the membership of about 1,000. With the $100 annual membership fee, that translates to a loss of $100,000.
In the organization’s 2010 fourth-quarter report issued that November, Martin claimed that “close to 500 (new) players” each year become NFL Alumni members. But the NFLAA acknowledged membership problems in a business plan sent to its local chapters in early 2011. An internal document obtained by FOXSports.com states, “There has been a noticeable and steady decline over the past four years.”
Not all documents obtained showed grim financial predictions.
An accounting firm (Rothstein Kass) forecast that the NFLAA would nearly triple its revenue to $5.89 million in 2011. Large spikes in membership dues and revenue made from golf tournaments and Super Bowl-related events were projected.
The true numbers are hardly as rosy.
A spreadsheet sent to board members in early November 2011 details losses of $151,685 from May through September. The organization projects an overall loss of $1.37 million for 2011 — a figure that would have been more than double were it not for NFL assistance.
The NFLAA doesn’t expect an immediate change in fortune, as it projects losses of $798,271 in the first six months of 2012. The NFL has made another $1 million loan in recent weeks that is basically keeping the organization afloat.
“Our commitment to retired players includes loans, grants or commitments of funding, to several organizations that provide programs and services to former NFL players,” the NFL wrote in a statement to FOXSports.com. “Those groups include the NFL Player Care Foundation, Pro Football Hall of Fame, Gay Culverhouse Player Outreach Program, Mike Ditka’s Gridiron Greats, the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine, the NFL Players Association, and the NFL Alumni Association. The operations of these organizations are overseen by their own boards. We review our funding commitments and make adjustments as necessary.”
The organization would have effectively gone broke last month, according to the document. By the end of November 2011, the cash balance in NFLAA accounts was projected to dip into negative territory by about $256,748. (It had reported $313,888 in cash in September and was projected to have $116,978 cash on hand in October.) By June 2012, the NFLAA had predicted, it would be $1,118,365 in debt before the most recent NFL loan infusion.
Other Internal NFLAA documents obtained by FOXSports.com acknowledged those revenue streams — including the GLA licensing and arranging speeches for former players — haven’t come to fruition, and NFL loans are being used to subsidize operations. The NFLAA’s financial problems have continued despite an 8 percent reduction in workforce in 2010, according to last year’s fourth-quarter report. There currently are 12 full-time NFLAA employees.
The NFLAA’s expenses — which include everything from staging golf tournaments to salaries — were projected at $5.39 million for 2011. That’s $1,862,537 more than the expenses from 2009, according to the most recent IRS tax form available.
NFLAA revenue — minus the money from the NFL — was projected at just $245,715 more in 2011 than in 2009.
“The NFL Alumni Association has yet to establish a revenue stream outside of the draw-down of those funds from the (NFL) loan,” the internal report stated.
According to minutes published online from a May 2011 meeting of the NFLAA’s Southern California chapter (18), each chapter is required to pay a $5,000 fee.
“Nothing comes back to the local chapters,” the minutes state. “The NFLAA has borrowed $2.5 million from the owners to continue to function. This loan has to be paid back starting in 2014.”
Nystrom said such demands, coupled with the NFLAA’s crumbling finances, have him thinking about removing the Minnesota chapter from the NFLAA’s umbrella. About five years ago, the NFLAA assumed control of the banking activities for each chapter. Monies raised, mostly through golf tournaments, were deposited into an account controlled by the NFLAA. In turn, those chapters would request payments to fund local charities and pay expenses.
In recent months, Nystrom said, checks have been slow to arrive despite numerous requests.
“The money is supposed to be kept in a separate account, but some of us are worried what will become of the fund if there’s a bankruptcy (involving the NFLAA)” Nystrom said.
Further troubles are emanating from the NFLAA’s new headquarters in Newark, NJ. The group lists 24 local chapters, but some are currently dormant. That has made reaching retired players all the more difficult.
In 2010, under a program touted by Martin to FOXSports.com, the NFLAA partnered with the Morehouse School of Medicine to assist former players seeking medical care. The NFLAA agreed to supply logistical support from each chapter to notify retirees and get them to seminars.
Morehouse had conducted 14 presentations around the nation through mid-November. Morehouse spokesman Chris Thrasher said they had to go it alone in a few cities already.
“Obviously, one of our main goals was to get as many former players as we can get to these events,” Thrasher said. “When there is no chapter or active chapter, it makes things more difficult. It’s then up to us to reach out to these guys. We try to find the movers and shakers in the area so they can get in contact with the former players.”
Speakers from the NFLAA-affiliated Gay Culverhouse Players Outreach Program and NFL Player Care foundation attended the NFLAA’s Southern California chapter meeting in May. The online minutes describe the turnout of NFLAA members as “disappointing” and list ways of trying to increase membership, such as organizing parties and a get-together at a Major League Baseball game.
Disappointment also best describes how Giles feels toward the NFLAA.
“I went to George Martin when he first started and I said, `George, I need your help,’ ” Giles said. “I never heard back from him. If you are there to help people, help people — even if it’s just one guy at a time.”