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NFL players deserve better healthcare benefits

Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest incident highlights the need for the NFL to step up for its players.

Fans Gather Outside Highmark Stadium Following Hospitalization of Buffalo Bills Player Damar Hamlin Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Damar Hamlin almost died Monday night.

The Bills defensive back collapsed on the field after taking a blow to the chest, quickly receiving CPR that saved his life. The game stopped. The players gathered round in horror as their teammate was resuscitated, and shockwaves were sent through the league, its fandom and the media tasked with covering it.

Monday night was a reminder that this is not just a game, but a violent and dangerous job that these men do for our entertainment. A job that can change, or maybe even end, their life at any given moment.

In the wake of Hamlin’s hospitalization, Cleveland talk show host Garrett Bush looked beyond to a bleak future for Damar Hamlin.

“He’s 24 years, he’s got a contract for $160,000, and he earns $825,000 this year… guess what he’s been in the league 2 years…that means he’s not vested, if he never plays another down in his life, he doesn’t get another check from the NFL. Let’s be clear about this, you gotta play for 3-4 years before you even sniff a pension. All these heartwarming prayers and condolences do nothing for that Mom.”

Bush’s comments resonated with many, especially among active and retired NFL players.

They could not be more righteous in their discontent with how the league cares for players, past and present. The truth is that the NFL owes its players so much more.

The NFL’s new CBA, effective as of Apr. 1, 2021, pays a maximum of $4,000 monthly to account for disability, down from $22,000 in the previous collective bargaining agreement. That $4,000 figure is the ceiling, and the actual payout is determined by a series of physicians and analysts who arbitrarily determine the severity of the injury. From their determination, they decide the size and duration of the payout.

If you consider the NFL’s history of screwing players out of concussion settlement money, having league-appointed panels determine the payouts is problematic, to say the least. Even though players can be eligible for disability no matter how long they play, the payouts are low and the nature of the payouts are unpredictable.

Those figures are even more insulting when you consider the NFL’s healthcare plan for former players. First of all, players are only eligible for post-career healthcare if they play five or more seasons. The average NFL career is three years long.

The NFL only covers healthcare for five years after retirement. After that, their health plan can cost up to $35,000 a year in premiums. While the NFL does provide healthcare stipends, they do not even amount to the premium payment on the league’s own plan.

Contrast this with the other major sports leagues in America. In the MLB, playing for a single day makes a player eligible for lifetime health benefits. If an NBA player is in the league for four or more seasons, they receive healthcare until they are eligible for Medicare. The NHL guarantees lifetime healthcare subsidies, despite bringing in the least money of any “Big Four” league. NFL veteran benefits don’t hold a candle to their fellow American Sports Leagues, even as the NFL generates billions more dollars.

Yet the insult to players and the nature of their precarity does not stop there. NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed. As Garret Bush said, the Bills and the NFL don’t owe Damar Hamlin another cent of his contract if he never plays another down.

Players on their rookie contracts, especially players like Damar Hamlin picked beyond the first two rounds, do not have much money beyond what they are paid by the NFL. These are young men who have spent their whole lives playing football and, in most cases, did not make money in college. They have no wealth to fall back on if they never play again.

The contracts sound lucrative to us sitting at home, and surely hundreds of thousands of dollars would change most people’s lives. However, that money will dry up quickly in a country that has the most expensive healthcare system in the world. A few hundred thousand dollars doesn’t mean much when medical bills can easily be tens of thousands of dollars. For example, a lifesaving heart procedure that costs $6,400 in the Netherlands costs $32,000 in the United States. MRIs that cost upwards of $1,000 in the US cost in the hundreds of dollars across much of the rest of the world. Being sick and being hurt in America are expensive.

All this to say that you have to be an incredibly lucky player to guarantee a stable life for yourself after retirement. You need to play for a long time and somehow avoid serious physical or neurological injuries. The unfortunate reality is that is a near impossibility.

NFL players, regardless of skill or stature in the league, are what make the game possible. Think about your favorite team and all the players being paid rookie deals or are making league minimums. The majority of the league is made up of players who are in these financially precarious positions, where one injury could financially and physically change the course of their life forever. Yet those players play the game all the same and make the game special, and bring in those billions of dollars. Justin Jefferson isn’t eligible for “vested NFL player” benefits if he never plays another down. Neither is Jalen Hurts, or Justin Herbert or dozens of other young stars that you tune into to see every week.

These players are putting their bodies, their minds, and their futures on the line for the league, the media and the fans. Every practice, every game, every snap. It is time for the NFL to step up, for the owners to step up, and guarantee better care for these players, no matter how long they’ve played or how well. Because that is what they deserve.

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