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Thomas, Eaton chime in on NBA retirees' health insurance

Former NBA centers share their thoughts on the NBPA's recent agreement to fund insurance for a large group of former players

POSTED: Aug 2, 2016 11:41 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Etan Thomas (left) and Mark Eaton played a combined 20 seasons in the NBA.

While I was on vacation last week, news came that the National Basketball Players Association had agreed to fund a health insurance plan for all former players who had played at least three years in the league.

The decision addressed what has been a very difficult issue for both the union and the league for decades, and is especially resonant today; current players have just experienced the most financially lucrative month in the history of the game. The cap expert Albert Nahmad estimated through mid-July that the first 120 players in free agency this summer had received more than $1 billion in new contracts for the 2016-17 NBA season, and $3.4 billion total.

That kind of largesse begged for some kind of social action, which the NBPA addressed with a unanimous vote of its player representatives.

The new program, established through UnitedHealthcare, will offer new plans with medical, hospital and prescription drug coverage for retired players with between three and six years of NBA service time, but who are not yet eligible for Medicare.

The new plans will have what the union calls "modest" out of pocket costs for players for deductibles and co-pays. Players with between seven and nine years of service will be offered similar coverage with lower out-of-pocket costs. Retired players with 10 or more years of service time would be able to cover their entire families.

Retired players with three to nine years of service that are eligible for Medicare will be offered $0 deductibles and co-pay plan, with a low-cost prescription drug plan. Retired players with 10 or more years of service will get this coverage for themselves and their spouse.

The open enrollment plan will begin this fall and coverage will begin Jan. 1, 2017.

The plan will address at least some of the myriad financial difficulties many former players face. The list of bankruptcies and business failures that many of the league's former players have experienced is well-documented. But many others live within their means, and still experience great difficulty making ends meet after their careers end. The plight of players who played well before the league's explosion in popularity in the 1980s and '90s is especially poignant. More than one ex-player wound up driving cabs for a living. The players who played before the establishment of the NBPA in 1964 had an especially difficult time. The late Bill Tosheff worked tirelessly until his death trying to get more benefits for the players who played three or more years before 1965.

Now, some of those players, and many others, are going to get at least some help. And they are grateful.

Former Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton played 11 seasons (1982-93) for the Jazz, making an All-Star team in 1989 and was twice named Defensive Player of the Year ('85, '89). The 7-foot-4 Eaton is the team's all-time leader in blocked shots (3,064, 4th all-time in NBA), is second in rebounds (6,939) and is third in games and minutes played.

A past president of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, Eaton is now a motivational speaker, with an emphasis on teamwork.

Etan Thomas played nine NBA seasons, mostly for the Washington Wizards, and has established a post-playing career as an author, public speaker and radio talk show host. Thomas missed a season after undergoing open heart surgery in 2007 to correct a torn aortic valve.

Both men wrote as Guest Morning Tippers this week about what the new NBPA program will mean for former players.

Eaton: A heartfelt thank you to NBPA

There is a general public assumption and perception that all retired pro athletes are well off and living on easy street. And while that may be true of a percentage of those who had long careers, the reality is that a large number of former players have the same struggles as everyone else, especially when it comes to affordable health care.

For much of the past two decades, the National Basketball Retired Players Association's Legends of Basketball has searched for an answer to get our guys, especially those over 50, covered in some way, shape or form. With an average NBA playing career of just under four years, many of our alumni have scrambled to find something affordable that works. The salaries of yesteryear, especially prior to the 1980s, were not far removed from the average median household income. That fact, combined with an aging population and higher-than-average health issues, has created a conundrum for many former players who are left with few available options.

Mark Eaton
Mark Eaton was a past president of the National Basketball Retired Players Association.

Running up and down the court night after night, year after year, takes a toll on the human body even for elite athletes. The back injuries and knee surgeries sustained during playing days advance into life-altering vertebrae fusions and joint replacements later in life. In addition, we have recently experienced a dramatic increase in cardiovascular disease. Tragically, within the past two years alone, we have lost many of our members, including All-Star and Hall of Famer Moses Malone, as well as Darryl Dawkins, Sean Rooks and Caldwell Jones.

Our group has been labeled too high of a risk for most insurers. Sadly, we have had to tell our members over and over again, "We're sorry, no one will take us."

It has been a challenging and exhausting journey for our Board. We have tried several programs to help players with the most critical needs and those in dire straits. From relationships with individual hospitals willing to step in and emergency funds from our partnerships with the NBA and the NBPA, we have found ways to take care of a select few. Most recently, the NBPA and the NBA funded an early intervention cardiovascular screening program in many NBA cities to help players assess their risk. Unfortunately, financial and medical constraints have severely limited the number of players we have been able to assist.

Anyone who has experienced the joy of winning on any court knows it does not happen alone. The resulting trust and loyalty creates a bond that lasts a lifetime. Thank you to the NBPA for honoring that bond.

– Mark Eaton

This week, in an instant, everything changed. The leadership of the National Basketball Players Association announced, in an unprecedented move, that the NBPA will fund a program that will cover all retired NBA Players with at least three years of service! The importance and impact of this decision cannot be understated.

The history of unions, especially in professional sports, is typically highlighted by stories of messy labor relations. However, when you dig deeper you find noble players wholly dedicated to serving one another and willing to take a stand to do so. From Oscar Robertson, Tommy Heinsohn and Bob Cousy who created the Players Association in 1964, to Chris Paul, LeBron James and Stephen Curry today, they all recognized a health care need, and selflessly addressed it.

The caliber of player who takes such action speaks volumes. The care and concern shown to retired players represents an all-inclusive breakthrough which raises the bar for all professional sports associations. Historically, once you stop playing and complete your career, it's all over. There are certain resources available like business internships, financial planning, asset management, etc., but in general, it is up to you to figure out the next phase of your life. It has been my experience that there has always been a desire on the part of current players to do more for the retired ranks, but the cost of health care specifically has been prohibitive.

Mark Eaton
Mark Eaton played 11 seasons in the NBA from the 1980s to the early 1990s.

The current NBA economic environment has changed more than just players' salaries. The TV contracts so carefully negotiated by the NBA, combined with collective bargaining, has created a boon that is un-paralleled in the history in the league.

I have the highest esteem and deepest regard for the current players who have committed a portion of this abundance to the health and well-being of the entire NBA team, retired and active.

The most important character trait of a team is the commitment to those around you, your teammates. Truly caring for those you work with and protecting them. Anyone who has experienced the joy of winning on any court knows it does not happen alone. The resulting trust and loyalty creates a bond that lasts a lifetime. Thank you to the NBPA for honoring that bond.

Personally, and on behalf of all retired NBA players, I thank you Chris Paul, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kyle Korver, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Board, for your largesse in serving those who walked before you. It is a gift that will dramatically change and improve hundreds of lives. It is an honor to experience your unselfish dedication to others, both on and off the court. Well done gentlemen.

With Gratitude,

Mark Eaton

Utah Jazz

1982-93

Mark Eaton is a former NBA All Star and Past President of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. He is a business motivational speaker with an emphasis on teamwork. To find out more, go to 7ft4.com

Thomas: NFL lags behind NBPA, but why?

Have you ever watched Phil Jackson walk? Or maybe noticed how Kenny Smith's legs are shaped when he waddles up to the diagram during Inside The NBA on TNT?

Have you ever noticed Bill Walton's movements or Wes Unseld's or countless other former NBA players -- many of whom have to have complete knee replacement surgeries or hip procedures in their 40s?

Well, take that and multiply it by 1,000 and that just may be enough to describe the condition of some former NFL players. Players who can't hold a fork or a spoon. Players who have trouble brushing their teeth every morning. Players who have to be helped down or up a flight of stairs, whose bodies are so dependent on painkillers that they have it mixed in with their morning oatmeal or pancakes but yet are still fighting to have a portion of the monumental health coverage for their former players that even remotely resembles the plan the NBPA just passed.

The National Basketball Players Association announced last week that the union voted unanimously to fund health insurance for all retired NBA players. The only requirement was that the player have completed a minimum of three years of service. By contrast, the NFL is still scrambling to improve a system both the NFL players and the NFL Players Association agree needs to be greatly improved.

Etan Thomas
Seven of Etan Thomas' nine NBA seasons were spent in Washington.

This has lead to high praise from former NBA players from around the league.

When I asked their opinions on the matter, Jamal Mashburn (a 2003 All-Star who played in the NBA from 1993-2004) said:

"Congratulations to the NBPA leadership for having the vision, infrastructure and courage to execute a Health Coverage Fund of this magnitude. Health care and coverage is often taken for granted except in a time of need. The NBPA is truly flexing its progressive organization."

Jerome Williams (who played from 1996-2005) said: "All NBA alumni salute the NBPA, Roger Mason and all the players for executing ground-breaking healthcare. As current and former players continue supporting each other, the game as a whole will benefit."

Kenny Anderson (a 1994 All-Star who played from 1991-2005) said: "It's great for the league to do this. Especially for the athletes before us. Guys that made the league to get it to where it is now should be rewarded in some form or fashion and the health issues are very important."

Keyon Dooling (who played from 2000-2013) said: "The recent decision by the union to give all former players who qualify healthcare service is life-changing. So many of our guys are still plagued with injuries and need surgeries in order to improve their quality of life and this program does the job. Big shout out to the current players for being their brother's keeper. I'm very proud and happy for our guys."

Corey Maggette (who played from 1993-2013) said: "As a former NBA player, I'm just happy to see our union growing stronger. As you can see, read or have heard, we have lost a lot of former players way too soon. Our medical health is so important now and when we are done playing. Hopefully we can help guys that need it."

Meanwhile, the NFL is under the impression that providing high-option, family insurance to players for five years after they have retired is more than adequate and generous. The NFL has refused to take into consideration the fact that life-altering (and often times crippling) physical ailments have left far too many former NFL players completely depressed and hopeless. They also fail to realize that those injuries directly caused from playing football may have just begun to materialize five years after they're done playing.

Etan Thomas
Etan Thomas goes up for a dunk in a 2006 game against Detroit.

In addition, the NFL seems to remain unfazed to the fact that many players are haunted by the ever-growing number of former players -- like Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster and former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler -- who have died way too early. Not to mention the grim list of former players whose undiagnosed Chronic traumatic encephalopathy was only discovered after a posthumous analysis of their brains. The names on that list include former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, former New York Giants safety Tyler Sash, former New York Giants running back (and broadcaster) Frank Gifford, former Atlanta Falcons star Ray Easterling, Pro Football Hall of Famer and former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and many, many more stories of tragedies.

When I asked former NFL running back Clinton Portis to examine the health care coverage he and other fellow players have, he said via text:

"It's just unfortunate that guys' insurance runs out after 5 years. That's normally how long it takes you to accept or admit that you have an issue! By that time it's something financial or career changing that's happened and most guys can't afford it!"

It's a tragedy that many of the players who built the NFL are currently struggling not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and financially because they aren't properly being taken care of after their playing days are over. This was the main reason the NBPA to put its deal into place as evidenced by the statements NBPA president Chris Paul made after the deal was announced.

"It's important that we take care of our entire extended NBA family, and I'm proud of my fellow players for taking this unprecedented step to ensure the health and well-being of our predecessors."

However in the NFL, many players who helped build, establish and elevate the NFL into what it is today are almost being treated like a prized race horse who is no longer physically able to race.

Many past NFL players have no pensions and no medical benefits and lack adequate disability, rehabilitation, therapy and mental health treatment as well as formal diagnosis of PTSD or CTE.

It is a tragedy that many former NFL players, who have sacrificed everything for the game of football, have to now be relegated to a life of embarrassment of their physical situation, desperation, abandonment, pain, and suffering as some of them mentally and physically rot in isolation.

There is a group called The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a 501(c)(3) that provides "financial grants and 'pro bono' medical assistance to retired NFL players in dire need. The organization focuses on the humanitarian side of post-football related issues, which include coordination of social services to retired players who are in need due to a variety of reasons including inadequate disability and/or pensions."

This is a great organization that appears to be helping many former players, but of course they can't help everyone and they shouldn't have to. The NFLPA should ensure that the NFL takes care of their former players the way the NBPA has made sure the NBA takes care of theirs.

Etan Thomas played nine NBA seasons from 2001-02 to 2010-11, mostly for the Washington Wizards.