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Carl Eller claims NFL Players Association ripped off retirees

Former Vikings defensive end Carl Eller believes NFLPA doesn’t serve best interests retirees. | Jim Mone~AP

Former Vikings defensive end Carl Eller believes the NFLPA doesn’t serve the best interests of retirees. | Jim Mone~AP

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Updated: November 5, 2011 5:19PM

The NFL informed Carl Eller’s legal team Friday that the NFL Players Association has taken $500 million that could have benefitted retirees, the Hall of Fame defensive end told the Sun-Times.

“We would not have heard of this if we would have waited for the players association or Nolan Harrison to give us this information,” said Eller, the primary plaintiff representing retired players in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. “The NFL felt this is information we should have.”

Harrison, a defensive lineman for 10 NFL seasons who is the NFLPA’s senior director of retired player services, was puzzled by Eller’s claim.

“No one from the NFL has informed us of this, so we can’t comment on anything that we’ve got confirmation from the league itself,” Harrison said. “In turn, we have no idea what Carl is talking about. I have no idea where this is coming from.”

Eller is referring to the $50 million a year the NFL has pledged as part of the recently ratified collective-bargaining agreement, which is expected to be finalized by Thursday. Eller reached half a billion dollars because it’s a 10-year deal. But according to a source close to the situation, the NFLPA doesn’t control that entire amount because some of it is earmarked for medical research and NFL and NFLPA charities. There are also conditions to improve the post-career medical options, the disability plan, to create or improve career transition and degree completion programs, as well as the Player Care Program.

But Eller’s legal team learned of the information from the league Friday, although the NFL distributed a news release with some of the deal highlights to reporters attending the meeting in ­Atlanta on July 21, when owners ratified the CBA.

An NFL spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Eller said the failure of the players association to disclose this important information to his group is the latest example that the union — which recertified Saturday — doesn’t serve the best interests of ­retirees.

In the spring, Eller and his group had a voice in court and even in mediation. But with time fading in recent months, the owners and players engaged in secretive talks at undisclosed locations, staying in hotels under pseudonyms. Eller said he showed up at one meeting outside of Chicago, even though he wasn’t invited.

“I invited myself,” he said, adding that the league welcomed him and provided him a forum with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners John Mara and Art Rooney. “We really fought for a seat at the table, and [the players] go off and disregard everything. That was the ultimate disrespect.”

Eller said the players emphasized higher salaries and revenue percentages in negotiations with owners, then ignored key points that would have benefitted retirees.

Michael Hausfeld, Eller’s lead attorney, noted several areas of concern that his group emphasized in earlier meetings with the league that the NFLPA ignored.

There are 800 retirees who don’t have full benefits because they are one credited season short of an adjustment made in 1993, he said, adding that the union hasn’t bothered to submit an evaluation on how the system can be improved.

Hausfeld also said the NFLPA is misleading its contribution to the newly named Legacy Fund. The league, Hausfeld said, has committed $320 million over and above the cap for 10 years while the remaining amount of $300 million within the cap is shared with the NFLPA.

“So the players’ portion is less than 50 percent,” Hausfeld said of the $620 million Legacy Fund. “All that extra would only amount to $1,000 a year for every pre-1993 player with four vested seasons.”

Harrison’s response?

“What does it matter?” he said. “This was supposed to come from the individual teams, to make reparations. It’s easy to throw rocks and darts at the glass house from the outside.”

Differences between retirees and their respective unions are inevitable. But many retired NFL players believe that professional athletes in other unions have better benefits and that the NFLPA, in particular, caters more to the needs of current players. A common complaint among retirees is the revelation in May that the late Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who was the longtime executive director of the NFLPA, had a union-paid $15 million deferred compensation fund for his widow, Terri.

“When his estate got settled, that shows exactly what he is,” said Hall of Fame guard Joe Delamaielleure. “Where in the hell did he make that much money?

“That’s why I wanted to join in on the fight. I understand unions and what they’re supposed to do for people. But our union never does that.”

Eller and Hausfeld said their group was put in a precarious position in recent weeks, as the clock ticked and games were threatened.

“Why not force our way in?” Hausfeld said. “The league and players and the fans and the court had one priority in mind: End the lockout. We didn’t even get out of the locker room.”

The battle is on, though, for the support of thousands of retired players, especially Hall of Famers. There’s a back and forth on which Hall of Famers have an allegiance to the respective sides.

But the chief challenge for retirees is the lack of solidarity, with some loyal to the players association and others to the NFL Alumni, among several other groups. And federal labor law presents a daunting hurdle anyway: Unions have the broad authority to make decisions for past, present and future employees.

But after the NFLPA recertified Saturday, the completion of the CBA is drawing to a close, and Eller’s group still wants to voice its opinion, although he insisted he didn’t want to derail the current deal.

“We are bigger fans than anybody,” he said of the retired players.

In the meantime, Eller said he is collecting signatures of retired players, agreeing that they don’t wanted to be represented by the NFLPA moving forward.

He said he’s nearing 1,000 signatures, including players such as Delamaielleure, Paul Krause, Randy Cross and Marcus Allen.

“If the NFL doesn’t call [on Friday],” Eller said, “it’s
$500 million we don’t even know about.

“It makes me feel vindicated, and all the work I’ve done is bearing out. This is more proof. I know this, and I’ve been fighting against this the whole time. I’m trying to get other people to understand what a difficult position this puts us in as retirees. We need people to see the true face of the players association.”

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