Steve Zabel says NFL labor agreement will be a 'wonderful deal' for retired players

Apr 24, 2020

Steve Zabel Poses in his Edmond home in 2013. [Oklahoman archives]

By Berry Tramel, The Oklahoman

Steve Zabel was on the front lines of labor negotiations with the National Football League.

Fifty years ago, Zabel and the other rookies in the once-prestigious College All-Star Game that kicked off the NFL season, were asked to boycott the game. The players met with their coach, legendary quarterback Otto Graham, and eventually played, because they were assured negotiations were proceeding in good faith. Indeed, within a few days, a collective bargaining agreement was reached.

In 1975, as a member of the New England Patriots, Zabel and teammates did strike, refusing to play an exhibition game against the Jets at the Yale Bowl. A few weeks earlier, bargaining had halted after 16 months of negotiations.

“We were sick of the owners and we were sick of our own (union) management that had allowed us to go forward,” Zabel said.

The Patriots returned to work after a federal mediator and their union persuaded them that the owners would bargain in good faith. The contract that eventually was signed “was worse than the one we had before,” Zabel said. “The owners had duped us.”

So Zabel is no novice on labor issues. The former OU star played 10 seasons in the NFL. And he’s thrilled with the latest labor agreement, voted upon in March, which increases pension payouts to veteran retirees.

“If it all goes through, it will be a wonderful deal,” said Zabel, now 72 and living in Edmond. “What I like best about it is it goes way back to all the people who were part of this game in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s that haven’t been able to really benefit with all the labor agreements as we’ve gone forward.”

The NFL pension plan lags far behind those of the NBA and Major League Baseball. For example, a baseball player needs 43 days on an MLB roster to qualify. An NFL player needs three seasons. NFL players get $21,360 annually for three years of service, with the average payout of $43,000. Baseball players get $34,000 per year, starting at age 62, with 43 days of service, and it’s common for baseball players to receive more than $100,000 annually.

The new NFL labor agreement increases payouts by $550 a month and increases pension eligibility for many players.

The Pro Football Retired Players Association lauded the labor agreement.

Dave Robinson, vice-chairman of the retired players association board, called the agreement “momentous for several generations of players. Not only have former and current players, as well as supporters, banded together, but everyone involved achieved something that will change so many lives. Thank you to the NFLPA and current players for giving back to retired players who gave their all on the gridiron."

The NFL’s treatment of retired players has been dubious over the decades. Pro football is a brutal sport, with players virtually guaranteed to have long-term health issues. The NFL also has the shortest average career span among the major team sports. Yet retired players don’t have medical benefits. Baseball players get full medical benefits with one day of service.

Zabel said as part of the new contract, former players up to age 65 would have accounts ranging to $50,000 for co-pays and other medical bills. The NFL does pay $160 a month to help older players pay Medicare Part D, and that will increase with the new contract.

“But the main help for myself and Ken Mendenhall and Jim Riley and Jimmy Files and Steve Owens is the increase in the pension amount,” Zabel said, referring to former Sooner teammates and fellow NFL alumni. “So the players association has really reached back to right a lot of wrongs. And I applaud them.”

Zabel also credited former NFL tailback John Riggins and his wife for leading the campaign to get pro football pensions more in line with basketball and baseball.

“When we were younger and we were out on strike, it was no freedom, no football,” Zabel said, referring to free agency. “We weren’t smart enough to think about pensions. We worked my entire career to get free agency, which they finally did in ’90.”

Now, of course, pensions are more important, and to the credit of current players and owners, the NFL is making amends to the veterans who helped make pro football the American pastime.

<strong>Steve Zabel sacks Dolphins quarterback Earl Morrall during a Patriots game in 1975. [Associated Press]</strong>
Steve sacs Dolphin quarterback Ear Morrall during a Patriots game in 1975. [Associated Press]

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected]. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at

Read the original article on the The Oklahoman.


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