Nearly 40 former NFL players filed into the largest conference room at the Phoenix Convention Center on Thursday morning. Many walked slowly, a couple with canes, and they eased their massive frames into chairs designed for smaller people.
The 8 a.m. news conference drew several dozen reporters, even though it conflicted with the New England Patriots' availability three days before the Super Bowl. Also on Thursday, Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate in support of ex-players whose bodies are battered and bank accounts drained.
The events were testament to the success Gridiron Greats, the organization that held the Phoenix gathering, and other advocates have achieved in illuminating the plight of many retired football players.
``I'm mad at the system. It's totally broken,'' former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, who has become the campaign's most visible face, said Thursday. ``It needs to be fixed.''
But through months of news conferences and congressional hearings, little of the talk has been about how that can be done.
Ditka acknowledges that he isn't an expert on the issues and views his main role as raising awareness.
``If I had all the answers,'' he told The Associated Press in November, ``I would change the thing tomorrow.''
The league and the NFL Players Association have made piecemeal changes to their programs for retirees and expressed their commitment to improving the system. That hasn't done much to quiet criticism, though, because the core of the impasse remains the same: The ex-players don't trust the NFL or the union.
``We're not one anymore. They've split us - current player and former player,'' former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, another vocal advocate, said Thursday. ``They have a voice. We don't have a voice.''
Technically, neither the league nor the NFLPA has to represent the retirees' interests.
``The union is fully within its rights to bargain to enhance benefits of the people it now represents,'' said Roger Abrams, a law professor at Northeastern University who has written several books about sports business. ``Those people elected them.''
That doesn't mean the NFL and the union should dismiss the needs of retirees; Abrams believes they would be well-served by overhauling the system. But it complicates the search for solutions.
Adding to the difficulty is that the concerns voiced by former players involve a variety of issues. Some have to do with the size of the NFL pension, or how its rules are administered. Others relate to the disability system. Always hovering in the background is the question of just how dangerous and debilitating the game is.
The retirees' lack of faith in the league and the NFLPA often bubbles up in disputes over the disability program. For the system to work, Johnston told The Associated Press in December, it's vital that ``everybody has confidence that the decision that's going to be come to is a fair decision.''
Instead, many retirees whose disability claims have been rejected express suspicions that the system is rigged against them. The Retirement Board, which rules on disability claims made by ex-players, consists of three members appointed by the NFL and three by the union.
The NFLPA notes that its representatives are all former players: Tom Condon, Jeff Van Note and Dave Duerson. The presence of Condon, though, particularly irks critics of the retirement system, who accuse him of conflicts of interest. Condon is a powerful agent whose clients include many current players; he has also represented NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw.
The NFL-appointed board members are Arizona Cardinals owner William Bidwill, Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass.
Doctors play a critical role in the resolution of disability claims. They evaluate players for the board, and if the six members are deadlocked, a physician may provide the final say. The doctors are selected by the Retirement Board, so ex-players who don't trust the board are leery of the physicians, too.
``I think we need to find a group of physicians that everybody agrees on,'' Johnston said in December. ``Everybody has to be involved in these decisions. You've got to have representation from owners, the NFLPA and the retired players.
``But we're not represented.''
The question, then, is where this representation would come from. Johnston acknowledged that retirees may need to more formally organize themselves to lobby for change. While Gridiron Greats has held many news conferences, its main focus is providing financial assistance and coordinating social services for needy ex-players.
This is why Johnston is interested in the work of some retirees in a very different profession.
When Delta Air Lines entered bankruptcy in 2005, its former pilots' pensions were threatened. Some formed the Delta Pilots' Pension Preservation Organization (DP3), which negotiated a financial settlement with the airline.
As with the football players, the Delta retirees didn't trust the union to represent their interests, said Jim Gray, the chairman of DP3's Board of Trustees.
Funds pooled through membership dues allowed DP3 to hire lawyers. Just as importantly, the organization offered a loud, unified voice for retirees.
DP3's leadership was made up of people who had held high-ranking positions in the union during their days as pilots, Gray said, so they were well-known to other retirees and Delta executives.
Without an organization, Gray said, ``then you've got 1,000 individual campfires burning across the country that can be snuffed out one by one or ignored one by one.''
AP Sports Writer Andrew Bagnato in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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