On obscene greed and that pitiful NFL team south of Kenosha

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a football player – specifically, I dreamed that I would one day be the starting running back for the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately, my thighs were roughly the width of theoretical particles, and I had a head the size of an Igloo cooler, so it was a dream I was better off abandoning. (Hey, even Tony Robbins can’t shrink the preternaturally large skulls of clueless, starry-eyed nerdlings. I understand my limits now.)

Anyway, I bring it up because I had the rare treat of meeting and interviewing Hall of Fame running back and Chicago Bear great Gale Sayers following his keynote address at Physicians Plus‘ recent Health Summit on Engagement at the EPIC campus in Verona.

Now, I’m still an avid Packers fan, and his being a Bear, I half expected and faintly hoped that he would greet me by vigorously shaking my hand, apologizing abjectly for his intrinsic Bear-ness, and with a certain Cartesian aplomb, exclaiming, “I am a Bear, therefore I suck.”

But he was extremely nice and accommodating, had some interesting things to say about the health of players from his era, and said nothing about being in the presence of the most disproportionately constructed humanoid figure he’d seen since the release of the Manute Bol bobblehead. So now I like exactly one Bear. I’ll put him on a par with Jarrett Bush, who I grudgingly admit is improving. How’s that for rapprochement?

Seriously, though, not only was Sayers great (take a look at this YouTube video if you don’t believe me), he also seems refreshingly old-school, proud of the era he played in and the players he went to war with (and against), and perhaps a little put off by the lofty demands of today’s players.

Sayers, who is the CEO of Sayers40 Inc. (which sells computer hardware, software, and services to Fortune 500 companies around the country), and whose own career was cut short by injury, was there to talk to an audience of business leaders focused on inspiring their employees to make healthier decisions (and therefore place downward pressure on health care costs), but his biggest applause lines came during the Q&A portion of his speech when he talked about today’s NFL bonus babies.

“The game has changed, I think, because the players, they think that they made this game what it is today,” said Sayers.

During my one-on-one interview with Sayers, who is on the board of directors of Gridiron Greats, a nonprofit that raises money for former NFL players facing financial hardship, I asked him about the health of some of the players from his era. The list of former NFL players who have been debilitated by injury is depressingly long. Most recently it was revealed that former Bear Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February, had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, likely as a result of years of hard knocks on the football field.

Sayers said it’s time that the NFL Players Association steps up and helps some of the old-time players who truly made the game what it is.

“They’ve got a lot of money, and these people need money to get out of these hospitals and get out of these wheelchairs and so forth,” said Sayers. “We’d like for them to set some money aside so they can pay for these things. Now Gridiron Greats, we’ve been doing a lot of golf tournaments and things like that to raise money for these people, but the Players Association, they’re not doing a whole lot.”

The current NFL labor strife is often characterized as a battle between billionaires and millionaires. Personally, I like to think of it as a battle between infants and 2-year-olds.

Of course, caught in the crossfire are fans, businesspeople (restaurant and tavern owners and sports apparel retailers in Wisconsin, air sickness bag distributors in Illinois and Minnesota), and especially Wisconsinites, whose post-Super Bowl XLV glow was interrupted first by the Scott Walker show and now by a potentially protracted lockout. (I have to wonder if this squabbling seems especially noxious to Wisconsin’s public employees, who are simply struggling to preserve our state’s middle class, and who must regard Jerry Jones’ and Tom Brady’s howls of displeasure as a sick joke.)

But while it’s easy to find villains in this dispute, I have to say the players deserve the greater benefit of the doubt. They put their bodies – and, it’s not a stretch to say, their lives – on the line for our fleeting entertainment, and they deserve to keep their slice of the pie. And frankly, I really don’t get what the owners are doing. I understand that it likely takes a team of highly paid specialists to reanimate Al Davis before the draft every year, but where’s the rest of the money going?

But Sayers is right: The players of today need to give back more to the players whose shoulders they’re standing on – as does the NFL. It’s a huge black eye to the sport as a whole that some of the players who made the initial investment in the wildly successful enterprise we enjoy today (and who, salary-wise, had a lot more in common with today’s public employees than with today’s players) are now walking around – if they can walk at all – with scrambled brains.

I have to say, I’m glad I never became a Packer. I’m no millionaire, but I’m 45 and can still walk without pain. I’ll take that trade every time.

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