Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey passed away Wednesday at the age of 69. His blend of size, speed, and strength made his position a weapon in the NFL’s increasingly sophisticated passing game, expanding the tight end’s role from that of a glorified sixth lineman.
In addition to his contributions on the field, Mackey served four years as NFL Players Association president from 1969 to 1973. A brief 1970 strike led to $11 million in improvements to player pensions and benefits, according to the Baltimore Sun.
He also led litigation that forced the elimination of the “Rozelle Rule,” which limited free-agent signings by mandating that a team losing a free agent must receive equal compensation. The courtroom victory helped pave the way for the free-agent system from which today’s players benefit.
The rigors of Mackey’s career, however, left him with dementia, an increasingly common side effect from the constant hits absorbed by NFL players. The NFL and NFLPA collaborated on the so-called “88 Plan,” which provides $88,000 per year for nursing home care to ex-players suffering from dementia, and $50,000 for home care.
The NFL lockout sometimes gets oversimplified to two groups of rich guys arguing over who gets how much of the league’s nine-billion-dollar revenue pie. What’s often lost is the issue of care for the players who put the NFL in position to rake in those amounts of money. Retired players have filed a grievance demanding a larger voice in the lockout negotiations, attempting to make sure that they’re not left out in the cold as owners and today’s players battle over the spoils of the game.
The negotiations appear to be warming up as the planned start dates of NFL training camps approach. It would be sad if the deal was sidetracked by both sides being reminded that they have not adequately provided for the NFL’s retirees. If it is, though, so be it, because making sure that players from John Mackey’s era can live their final days in dignity vastly outweighs the need for today’s stars to buy another house.