A panel composed of a “super agent” and current and former professional football stars discussed challenges facing the National Football League and its players in front of a capacity crowd at the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media & Society’s second speaker series event on April 7.
“The top thing right now is that we just want to play,” said Houston Texans quarterback Matt Leinart ’05, who won the Heisman Trophy and two national championships at USC.
NFL owners are locking out Leinart and the rest of the players, putting next season in jeopardy.
“The NFL is a business, but everyone needs to put egos aside and realize that football is the greatest sport in the world. The fans love it, and we love it,” Leinart added.
He was joined by USC Annenberg alumnus and New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez ’09, who agreed that the most important issue in the league right now is for the players and owners to reach an agreement.
Former players Willie Gault (Super Bowl XX champion), Shelby Jordan (Super Bowl XVIII champion), Toi Cook (Super Bowl XXIX champion) and Sam Cunningham (nine-year NFL veteran and 1972 national champion at USC) joined the panel, as well as Leigh Steinberg, who often is credited as the real-life inspiration for the sports agent in Jerry Maguire.
Communication professor Dan Durbin, director of the Institute of Sports, Media & Society, moderated the event.
The retired players and Steinberg primarily focused attention on player health and benefits following retirement. Cook said the average life span of an NFL player is 55 years, which makes health insurance that much more important after retirement.
“It’s all about the benefits and long-term health insurance,” Cook said. “When I retired, you got two years of health insurance. It’s up to five now. The NFL needs to get health care on the table and discuss it.”
Gault recommended that the monetary difference between the players and owners go into a fund for retired players. He also advocated that all players be required to get an EKG, a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of the heart. His charity, Athletes for Life, aims to save lives through health education and to provide medical access by using heart monitoring technology with new detection capabilities.
“If you see the shape these former players are in, it defies conscience not to help them,” Steinberg said. “It’s one thing not being able to bend over for your child at age 50 – it’s another thing not to be able to even recognize your child.”
Steinberg said the long-term effects of injuries terrify him. He first realized the seriousness of severe concussions when he visited former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman after Aikman led the Cowboys to an NFC Championship win against the San Francisco 49ers, ensuring Dallas a spot in the Super Bowl. He saw Aikman, sitting alone in a dark room.
Steinberg said: “Troy looks at me and says, ‘What are you doing here? Did I play today? Did I play well?’ I said, ‘You’re going to the Super Bowl.’ His face brightened. Five minutes passed, and he asked the same sequence of questions all over again. Five minutes more passed, and it happened again. I could no longer represent players in the NFL unless I took the concussion issue seriously and got information from players about long-term repercussions.”
Steinberg also stressed that current NFL players have a responsibility to be positive role models for a younger generation.
“My practice for 37 years has been built on role modeling,” he said. “These athletes have the opportunity to make a tremendous difference in the world if they use their image correctly.”
Jordan said he was never worried about what the score of a game was, as long as his team won. He said he approaches life with the same attitude.
“Life is about opportunities and how we see ourselves in those opportunities as we approach them determines how well we do,” Jordan said. “There’s always the next play and the next game. If you’re not satisfied with your performance and have the opportunity to critique it, then you always find something you can become better at. Keep getting up every day and put that day or performance in the win column because every time you face the world, you’ll win.”
The Sports & Social Change Speaker Series, which has been funded by a grant from Nike, is designed to bring together sports professionals and scholars to discuss important issues in sports and sports media.