John Mackey died Thursday, just as the NFL season is being jeopardized by the lockout. Perhaps the timing is mere coincidence, but the owners and players should see it as a sign they need to reflect on Mackey’s life.
Mackey’s legacy is intertwined with this labor dispute in so many ways. First he was a Hall of Fame player, representing the good that players bring to the game and the good that the game brings to players. Both sides should take note.
The players should appreciate that Mackey challenged the NFL and brought a lawsuit that put the free into free agency. That enabled he and his colleagues — and their successors — to enjoy greater riches and benefits.
They should further appreciate that as president of the fledgling NFL Players Association, he championed the cause of former players and their need for better health care and pensions. Someday they will all be former players.
The owners should appreciate that Mackey’s union tenure came in the wake of the AFL-NFL merger and coincided with the growth spurt that teams and players shared at the start of the Super Bowl era.
The owners should further appreciate that Mackey helped revolutionize the tight end position, making it a greater passing weapon and contributing to the game’s evolution at a time when it was expanding into the most popular — and wealthy — sport in America.
So too should both sides appreciate how the end of Mackey’s life demonstrates where they have failed. Mackey suffered from dementia, likely caused by playing in the NFL, and his NFL benefits were inadequate for his needs.
Mackey’s plight led to the implementation of “Plan 88”, named for his jersey number, in the 2006 collective bargaining agreement, which expired in March. The plan calls for nominal expenditures for care of former players with dementia and Alzheimer’s, progress inspired by Mackey, but too little progress.
Former players want the courts to force the owners and players to give them a seat at the negotiating table with the two sides chipping away at the empire the former players helped build.
Presiding over that empire are a bunch of guys in suits who can’t find adequate funding for former players health care and pensions in a $9 billion-a-year budget.
These guys in suits have brought the NFL to the brink of losing some of the luster that men in jerseys, like Mackey, built. Owners and players should think about John Mackey and all that he represents and realize how much they have in common.
They should invite the former players to the negotiating table. A three-way negotiation on better benefits for former players — to whom both sides are indebted — could be a unifying force that expedites a new deal.
Perhaps the owners and players don’t believe in kismet, but they should.