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NFL retirees lobbying for pension boost

It gets uglier by the minute.

Several NFL teams, including the Bills, have taken advantage of the lockout by cutting the pay of coaches and other staff. They're calling it a "program of shared sacrifice."

The NFL Players Association wants college stars to boycott next month's televised draft in a show of solidarity. The Vikings' Adrian Peterson referred to the players' plight as "modern-day slavery."

So whom do you root for in this mess? How can any lucid, sensible person take sides in a fight between wealthy adversaries who can't figure out how to divide the spoils of a $9 billion industry?

Here's an idea: Root for the retired players. Specifically, the guys who retired before the landmark 1993 deal and are forced to survive on pensions that look like table scraps alongside the lucrative salaries of today's players.

A group of former NFL players has been screaming for years to get bigger pensions for the older guys, particularly those who retired before 1993. They're like you, the average fan. They don't trust either side in these negotiations.

"Neither side is going to win the hearts and minds of fans," said Jeff Nixon, the former Bills safety who is a writer and spokesman for Fourth and Goal, an advocacy group for retired players. "It's hard for citizens with a median income of $46,000 to have sympathy for players with a median income of $900,000, especially in this economy."

A number of ex-players, including Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure, have been particularly critical of the Players Association. They've accused the union of turning its back on former players, some of whom are crippled and destitute and living on monthly pensions in the $1,200 range.

The ex-players can be strident and emotional. But if not for their prodding persistence, the issue would be swept under the rug. Too many of the modern players have forgotten the men who built the NFL monolith with their sweat, blood and broken bones, at a time when players had few bargaining rights.

"We were like the guinea pigs of the NFL," said Nixon, who retired after six years because of knee problems. He runs the Buffalo Employment Training Center, a summer youth jobs program.

But the ex-players have the league's attention. The owners' last proposal, which was rejected by the union, included "funding of $82 million in 2011-12 to support additional benefits to former players, which would increase retirement benefits for more than 2,000 former players by nearly 60 percent."

"We're trying to do everything we can to push," Nixon said. "I don't think anything would be done if not for a large vocal minority, fighting for these things, calling for congressional hearings, filing class action suits over group licensing."

The NFL proposal isn't perfect. Nixon said the added money is targeted only for players who have begun taking pensions. Nixon would rather wait and get the full pension, but this plan would compel some players to take it earlier.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, wants the union to speak with a singular voice. He has questioned the loyalty of Nixon and other retired players. Former Giants defensive end George Martin, the NFL Alumni president, can't get a meeting with Smith.

The retired players aren't going to be silent, and they aren't going away. They've waited years for a more lucrative pension plan. So with negotiations at a standstill and the NFL steeling itself for a shutdown, the ex-players are anxious about the outcome. They've learned never to take anything for granted.

"We're concerned that if this does extend longer, and they start losing money, the retired players will lose the most," Nixon said. "We're the ones getting the crumbs off the Thanksgiving table."

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Jerry Sullivan chats live at 1 p.m. today on the Sully on Sports blog.

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