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NFLPA and USA Today Huff, Puff, Can't Blow Ditka's House Down

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 8, 2007 11:33PM

2006_11_ditka.jpgMike Ditka's red-faced this weekend, and not because of overindulging on his vanity wines. A report in yesterday's USA Today showed that a charity "Da Coach" founded three years ago to help retired Hall of Fame football players whose bodies are ravaged by the violent demands of the NFL has only doled out $57,000 in assistance. Federal and state tax records indicate that $715,000 of the $1.3 million raised by the Mike Ditka Hall of Fame Assistance Trust Fund was spent on three golf tournaments intended to benefit the charity. Included in that number were $280,000 to a local firm to organize the tournaments and at least $65,000 in appearance fees to ex-NFL stars.

Living up to his nickname, "Iron Mike" shot back, with a little help from his friends. In a press release yesterday and reports in both dailies today (although only the Tribune's is online as of post time), the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund - on which Ditka sits on the board of directors - indicated that USA Today reporter Richard Willing (who wrote the report) was either susceptible to spin control by the NFL Players Association or just a bad reporter.

The press release clarified that Gridiron Greats and the Ditka HOF Trust are two separate entities, and that in less than one year of existence Gridiron Greats has meted out over $100,000 in financial aid and services to former players in need. Most telling, Gridiron Greats notes that the timing of the USA Today report coincides with reports that current NFL players and other celebrities are donating single-game paychecks and support to Gridiron Greats.

Ditka has been the most vocal critic of the NFLPA and their seeming reluctance to assist retired players, saving some of his choicest words for union chief - and fellow Hall of Famer - Gene Upshaw, who earns a salary of $4 million from the NFLPA. NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis didn't go out of his way to differentiate between the two charities, saying "At some point it's got to be about more than holding yet another press conference and blasting people. You ought to be announcing 'We just gave away a half a million.' Unless, of course, you didn't."

We had to read the stories twice before it sank in that Willing's report didn't focus on Gridiron Greats, indicating that he may have been both privy to NFLPA spin and a bad reporter. We aren't fans of Ditka by any stretch. The Bears fan in us points to Ditka's run for the money as the main reason the "Super Bowl Shuffle" Bears didn't win three Super Bowls in a row as they were built to do. But in this case it's reasonable to argue that Ditka saw what he was doing with his HOF trust and decided - like a good football player - that true strength is in numbers and helping former players in need, like a game of football, is a team effort.