Retiree leader Bennett questions NFL's commitment to ex-players

Cornelius Bennett, the newly elected leader of retired NFL players, is skeptical that league commissioner Roger Goodell is committed to improving former players' benefits under a new collective bargaining agreement.

Bennett, a former linebacker, said in a phone interview Thursday that he'll have to "see it to believe it," adding it would be a public-relations "black eye" for Goodell to go back on his word.

Bennett was elected chairman of the NFLPA's Board of Former Players at the union's annual meeting in Hawaii last month. He played 14 NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts before retiring in 2001.

Bennett takes over at a critical juncture as the NFL and its players brace for a potential work stoppage next year. Among the topics on the bargaining table are retired player benefits, historically a sticky issue for both the league and the NFLPA.

Benefits became a point of contention last month, when Goodell stated in a letter that the NFL is committed to its former players and that no new collective bargaining agreement will be made without improving things for them. Goodell added that the union's recent labor proposal included no improvements for retired players.

The union responded by labeling Goodell's comments as being "disingenuous" and challenged the NFL to improve pensions and provide players with more than five years of health care when they retire.

On Thursday, Bennett questioned the intent behind Goodell's assurance last year that retired players' benefits wouldn't be affected this season, which will be played without a salary cap. He wondered whether the NFL used the issue to sway retired players in supporting management during labor talks.

"Let's not have it look like he's giving us a handout," Bennett said, noting that retired players earned those benefits. "Let's not try to sway my guys into believing that management is 100 percent behind former players, because it's never happened in the past."

The NFLPA hasn't been without its critics among retirees. It has been criticized by former players, who believe they were alienated under former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, who died in August 2008.

Upshaw's successor, DeMaurice Smith, has actively worked to heal the rift.

Last year, Smith eased tensions by dropping an appeal of a lawsuit and reaching a $26.25 million settlement with thousands of retired players who had successfully sued the union for cutting them out of lucrative marketing deals. Smith also has reorganized the union's structure by providing retired players two seats on its executive committee.

Bennett's challenge is to continue bridging the gap.

"I'm no spin doctor or anything like that. All I can do is let my actions speak for me," Bennett said. "It's not a perfect world, and we wish things were perfect. Mistakes were made, and it's time to try to correct those mistakes. And that's where I am with this."

Bennett's election received a mixed response from members of the newly merged retired players group NFL Alumni/Fourth and Goal.

Jerry Kramer, a member of the NFL Alumni board of directors, believes Bennett can make a difference.

"I think he can do the job. And I think he will do the job ethically, morally and for the right reasons," Kramer said. "I'm pretty pleased to see him in that spot."

Jeff Nixon of Fourth and Goal was skeptical. Though saying he likes Bennett personally, Nixon questioned whether Bennett's voice will be heard by a union when the primary goal is helping active players.

"It's going to be hard for Cornelius to remain a true advocate for retired players while he is enjoying all the perks that the NFLPA will bestow," Nixon wrote in an e-mail to the AP. "I hope he stays true to the mission of retired players."

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