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Retired NFL players' message to union: Rift over benefits not settled

IRVING, Texas -- Retired NFL players who are seeking better benefits have a message for new union leader DeMaurice Smith: Their dispute isn't over.

A vocal group led by Hall of Famers Joe DeLamielleure and Elvin Bethea on Tuesday rejected a claim by the NFL Players Association's executive director that the union and former players have settled their differences.

The retired players say Smith's assurance that benefits will improve is nothing more than talk until they see proposals. The ex-players want $100 million added to the pension fund to help NFL alums, particularly those with debilitating injuries.

The group spoke with reporters in Irving, Texas, not far from a meeting of NFL owners.

"Today, we put the NFL Players Association on notice," former Buffalo Bills defensive back Jeff Nixon said.

The former players warned that if Smith assumes there isn't a divide, owners will exploit the differences in labor negotiations. Smith, who declared the rift over last week during a speech in Charlotte, N.C., is among many who expect a lockout when the current labor deal expires after the 2010 season.

Two NFL strikes in the 1980s were notable for players crossing the picket line, which hurt the union in negotiations. The former players warned Tuesday of a replay.

"The union needs to do a better job of communicating with all players," Nixon said. "They've created some divisions. We don't need these divisions. We need to be united."

George Atallah, a union spokesman, said the association had no comment.

Former Dallas Cowboys tight end Billy Joe DuPree said the former players need a voice at the bargaining table. Without it, he said, pensions that run as low as a few hundred dollars per month will continue.

"We've got to take whatever crumbs that are thrown out," said DuPree, who has co-written a book, "The Unbroken Line," with labor attorney Spencer Kopf, telling the story of players they consider forgotten in the modern NFL.

"We're not asking for the NFL to give handouts," DuPree said. "We're asking for opportunities for guys to be self-sufficient."

Kopf said Smith has signaled that he's an extension of the Gene Upshaw era by leaving in place executives responsible for a negligence lawsuit won by former players against the union.

"You look at the structure and how it's supposed to protect the players and frankly ... it just doesn't do it," said Kopf, who played a role in settling the 1982 strike.

Nixon said the former players want a better accounting of how the marketing arm of the union decides which players are called on for appearances, and why executive salaries in the organization run as high as seven figures. Outspoken players are passed over for chances to sign autographs and be more visible, Nixon claimed.

"If you've been a critic of the union, they can lock you out of that country club," Nixon said.

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Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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