December 22, 2014

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NFL greats say league needs to make health issues of retired players a priority

Dave Robinson is introduced before the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest Friday at the I-X Center in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Dave Robinson is introduced before the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest Friday at the I-X Center in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

CLEVELAND — With television contracts and player salaries that keep growing, the NFL has no problem taking care of its current players.

It’s the retired ones that are making noise for reform.

“I don’t think (the NFL is) taking care of the veterans like they should,” said Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson on Sunday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural Fan Fest at the I-X Center. “I think there should be more done. The thing that really bothers me is there’s too many players that don’t understand where football was, where it is now and why it’s progressed like this.”

Recent medical findings on the dangers of concussions have brought the issue to the forefront. While the league has taken steps over the last four seasons through harsher penalties — like that of targeting a defenseless receiver — and new concussion protocol, the NFL still faced a lawsuit involving more than 4,000 former players.

The NFL and the plaintiffs came to a settlement for about $760 million, however, Judge Anita Brody denied the preliminary motion in January citing concern over the fairness of the figure and whether the players would be paid properly based on their claims.

The lawsuit remains a cloud over the league.

“We played the game and took a game that was like professional wrestling in the ’50s and turned it into the game it is today,” Robinson said. “We paid the price, some of the guys, with their bodies and I think somebody should take care of them.”

On Saturday, Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes said he used to tell people he had three concussions in his career, times when he wasn’t able to recite his name or see well.

But once he found out the true symptoms of concussions — even something as simple as a headache — he’s no longer sure how many he had.

He said he seems like he’s fine now, but isn’t sure whether or not that will continue.

“That’s why it’s important, most of all for kids, to know when they have a concussion so they can get off the field,” Haynes said. “Anybody that thinks they can play through a concussion is fooling themselves.”

Haynes didn’t go as far as laying all the blame at the NFL’s feet, saying players and The Players Association should have been more responsible, too.

“I can’t 100 percent say it’s all (the NFL’s) fault, but someone should’ve been watching over our backs because a lot of times guys are just kids — 22, 23 years old,” Haynes said.

“Then because there’s so little knowledge about it, parents are wondering if their kids should play football. I want my kids to play, but I also want them to be safe.”

A lot of the same concussion rules and protocols have been adopted by the NCAA, which is also facing an outcry from its players over healthcare benefits and fair treatment given the amount of money the organization makes under its various television contracts.

During Saturday’s session, Browns legendary running back Jim Brown called the NCAA reprehensible and exploitative, even challenging the organization to come after him in “any way they want to.”

Robinson said Sunday he agreed with everything Brown had to say — and then some.

“The athletic scholarship is the worst one,” Robinson said. “All scholarships pay for your education, be it for academics or poverty, but the other people can go work. So they can get supplemental income through McDonald’s or something.

“The athlete can’t do that. The athlete is the poorest scholarship student on campus. And the line they give you is you get a free education. A lot of other guys get a free education without getting their heads beaten in while making hundreds of millions of dollars off of them.”

Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a more cautious approach to NCAA reform. While Moon supports stipends and meal allowances, he is not in favor of the change some Northwestern players want: to consider themselves employees and to form a union.

“I don’t think college athletes are employees,” Moon said. “I still think that college athletes are student-athletes because if you look at the majority of players that make it to the professional ranks, whether it’s in basketball or baseball or whatever, there is a big majority that’s going to be still students. They’re going to need that education, they’re not going to go on to play at that next level.”

Chronicle-Telegram sportswriter Scott Petrak contributed to this report.

Contact Chris Sweeney at 329-7135 or ctsports@chroniclet.com.

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