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Further Review | Sports

NFL needs to wake up — its players aren’t throwaways

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The substances are different nearly four decades later. But the substance itself, the principle of the matter, remains the same: Should professional athletes be held to a different standard than the general population regarding what they ingest?

John Wilbur remembers the reaction of another NFL player and fellow union activist, Tom Keating, when it was suggested around the time of the 1973 Super Bowl that players be drug tested.

"He said, if that’s the case, they should do urinalysis in the press box. The coaches and everybody else, too," said Wilbur, the longtime Hawaii resident who played for the Cowboys, Redskins and Rams.

NFL labor unrest was about more than drug testing then, as it still is. Wilbur’s playing era included the AFL-NFL merger, players bolting for the WFL and the advent of free agency. He was at the forefront of a successful fight for pensions.

These issues and others from the ’70s are all recorded in black and white and psychedelic in Rolling Stone stories by Wilbur’s good friend, Hunter S. Thompson (who, as rumor has it, did a bit of drug testing of his own).

Fast-forward to today, and Wilbur is long retired from football, even from his second career as agent for players such as Rich Miano and Jesse Sapolu. The businessman remains active in real estate and involved in NFL labor issues as an advocate for former players’ benefits.

The latest substance issue for current players is human growth hormone. In a sense, it goes full circle.

"They want permission for deeper and broader drug testing. The league is trying to get HGH testing through now," Wilbur said. "They (the players) should dismiss it now the same way as we did then. Take the same position. Test everyone."

A HOT topic now is the long-term health of athletes who spend their entire careers pounding on each other. Actually, short-term, too, after the autopsy of 26-year-old Chris Henry revealed the onset of dementia symptoms previously found in only older men who’d played the game.

It bothers Wilbur that the NFL wants former players to donate their brains for study after death without compensation. The pensions he and others fought for are good by "civilian" standards. But are they fair considering how much money goes through the NFL, and how much of their physical and mental health players have left on the field?

There’s an idea to link benefits for the former players with the rookie wage scale. That seems fair. But Wilbur doesn’t seem too optimistic about it.

"We’re the throwaway generation," he said.

The NFL players association held its annual convention on Maui this year. Following those meetings, Wilbur, the former NFLPA Hawaii Chapter president, is hopeful current and former players could get together and form a stronger negotiating lobby.

"The idea is still unity," he said.

SOMETIMES THERE are victories. Wilbur and other players from his generation won a class-action lawsuit against a video game company because they were not compensated for use of their likenesses. But then the players sued their own attorney.

The big deal is health benefits.

"The disability allowance through the pension board is inadequate," Wilbur said. "Former greats are in wheelchairs and they’re not being taken care of.

"My suggestion to the NFL is those with signs of dementia should be evaluated and then paid workers compensation. But that hasn’t been a path so far that the owners have taken."

Wilbur came here in 1974 to play with The Hawaiians of the World Football League and has lived in the islands most of his life since.

But in a sense, he’s still in the NFL trenches, fighting alongside other players of the throwaway generation.

"What I want is what we’re due," he said. "So we can be whole people."

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.

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