In Memoriam: John Mackey, a Champion of Players

On Wednesday, July 6, 2011, Pro Football Hall of Fame member and former NFLPA President John Mackey passed away.  Mackey, whose playing career spanned ten seasons, during which time he “. . .revolutionize[d] the position of Tight End,” will largely be remembered by the general public for his playing prowess.

However, legal scholars and players alike should remember Mackey fondly as an individual who was willing to go the distance to champion the rights of NFL players.

A lawsuit filed by him, Mackey v. NFL, promoted the free agency rights of players as a result of its eventual eradication of the Rozelle Rule.  In short, the Rozelle Rule required that when a player left his team through free agency, that the team be compensated by the new team he joined.  Today’s NFL players who obtain high salaries through free agency largely have Mackey to thank for going out on a limb and risking his popularity within the league to secure this right.

Recently, Mackey suffered from frontotemporal dementia.  It is likely that his battle against this disease will serve as his most lasting legacy as a former-NFL player.  There has been recent debate over the whether the impact players sustain on the football field causes brain injury.  Mackey’s battle with the disease led the NFLPA and NFL to create the “88 Plan,” which provides more extensive nursing home benefits to former-NFL players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease than were provided prior to Mackey’s diagnosis and plight with the disease.  It is said that Mackey’s brain will be donated to the Boston University School of Medicine, in a further effort to determine the effects of brain damage on athletes.

On a day when the NFL and NFLPA are locked in a labor dispute, Mackey’s death should serve as a beacon to current players.  Mackey lived his life as a champion of the game of football–both as a Hall of Fame Tight End and as an advocate for the improved rights of players.  In negotiations over receipt of revenues and increasing the number of regular season games, the NFLPA and current players should look to the guidance set forth by their former leader when determining where to draw their line in the sand.

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