Pension for Boxers: Let's Get It On!
By Ted Sares
"Feel Good" stories are nice to write and hopefully nicer to read. This is not such an article. This is one that indicts and condemns the boxing establishment, politicians and government officials for failing to address in a decisive manner an issue that has been neglected far too long.
Too many boxing stories seem to end wrong. Great fighters who have thrilled us over the years, whether fighting for a championship belt or at a local club, face retirement without any kind of financial assistance or access to medical care. Many suffer from depression, alcohol and substance abuse, rage disorders, homelessness or being indigent, bankruptcy (even the great Joe Louis died penniless), and a total lack of financial awareness. Few even know how to engage basic investment vehicles or where to go for help. Some suffer from the terrible effects of boxer’s syndrome (pugilistic dementia). In this connection, Bobby Chacon, about whom I have written in the past, Willie Pep, Jimmy Ellis, Wilfredo Benitez and the late Jimmy Young come to mind. When he died in June at age 55 in an assisted living center in California, Mike Quarry tragically followed his brother. Jerry, who was 53 when he passed away in January1999 in a hospital in Templeton, Calif. Among their afflictions, both suffered from the dreadful pugilistica dementia. Jimmy Lester just passed away. Some, like Greg Page or Gerald McClellan, have been injured in the ring; something that can occur in a split second. For many ex-fighters, a combination of these factors can make for a dismal outlook.
Of course, there are many stories that end the other way....Harry Arroyo, Jerry Cooney, John Scully, Larry Holmes, Dana Rosenblatt , Alex Ramos and Virgil Hill, to name a few and I have written about many of them.
That said, my message here is a stinging indictment of the boxing establishment, particularly those promoters and officials who seem to remain unmoved in their single minded quest to make money from the sport without giving back to those who generated the money in the first place. Professional hockey players, baseball players, football players and soccer players, to name just a few, all have great benefit packages including pension features. In a word, boxers have none, and it's been that way too long. But it doesn't have to be.
How difficult can it be to set up a plan similar to a 401k scheme in which a small percentage of each purchased ticket (including PPV) is transferred into a central fund and matched in some equitable manner by fight promoters? I submit that with the appropriate expertise and financial assistance, this would not be difficult at all. But it is not my purpose here to define the specifics (I.e., eligibility, trustees, pay-out features, annuities, matching's, lump sum conversions, etc) of how such a plan could be structured (though I believe I could do that without too much difficulty). Suffice to say translating the concept to reality is long overdue and each day that boxers go without such needed assistance is a shameful day for boxing. As Jack Newfield states in his article entitled, "The Shame of Boxing" (posted on the web in October 25, 2001, "I have known a lot of fighters and liked almost all of them. They have no pension, no union, no health insurance, no voice. For every George Foreman who gets rich, there are 1,000 you never hear of who end up with slurred speech, failing memory and an empty bank account."
Sure, there are other extremely important variables that come into play such as the possible role of unions (the Teamster affiliated Joint Association of Boxers), the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, the Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2003, and, of course, the possibility of a national boxing commission, but these should not become red hearings that impede the immediate need for a pension plan. On the contrary, they should become enablers to help make it happen. But wait, someone had already thought of about this, although in a way that needs some major improvements.
THE CALIFORNIA PLAN
The Mission Statement of the former California State Athletic Commission was to make California the model state for the welfare of boxers and other licensees, with worldwide respect from the public and the industry. In line with this it established a Professional Boxers Pension Plan the concept of which could easily be the model for all other states to build on. The plan is as follows:
SUMMARY PLAN DESCRIPTION
1. General Information About the Plan
The name of the plan is the Professional Boxers' Pension Plan. The entire plan is set out in the California Business and Professions Code ("Code") and in Title 4 of the California Code of Regulations section 400 through 416 ("Regulations"). This summary is provided so that one can understand how the plan works. If there are any conflicts between the plan as written in the Code and Regulations and the description of the plan in this summary, the Code and Regulations will control. The plan was changed in 1996. Now only promoters make contributions to the fund. The plan was also changed to make job training early retirement benefits available to some boxers. The job training early retirement benefits are described in section seven (7). The plan is administered by the California State Athletic Commission ("commission"). The plan has a public purpose because it helps eligible boxers have some benefits when they retire.
2. Who Contributes to the Plan?
Before June 17, 1997, the boxer, manager and the promoter each contributed to the pension fund; now only the promoter does so. The promoter's contribution is based on the number of tickets sold and comped per event, up to a maximum contribution of $4,600 per show. The law states that a licensed California boxer has to participate in the pension plan.
3. Who is Eligible for Benefits?
Any professional boxer who is licensed in and fights in California ("boxer") after July 1, 1981 may be eligible to receive benefits. You are eligible to receive benefits as a "covered" boxer if you:
(a) fought in 10 scheduled rounds per calendar year during each of four calendar years after July 1, 1981 without an intervening break in service; and
(B) fought in 75 scheduled rounds after July 1, 1981 without a break in service.
If you fought in at least 20 scheduled rounds between July 1, 1981 and June 30, 1984, you will also receive credit for rounds you fought between June 30, 1978 and July 1, 1981.
A "break in service" means that you did not fight at least 10 scheduled rounds in California during any 36 months in a row after July 1, 1981 and before you turned 55 years old.
If you are eligible for benefits and you die before age 55, the benefits can be paid to a person you choose (the "beneficiary"). If you have not chosen anyone, then the commission will choose the person who will receive your benefits, in the order named in the California Probate Code. The commission's choice is final.
4. When Can I Get Benefits?
A boxer who has vested can receive benefits when he or she:
Reaches the age of 55;
Becomes medically retired or suffers an injury provable by a physician after the age of 36;
Reaches the age of 36, becomes retired from boxing and requests a vocational education benefit that would be paid directly to the school; or
Dies before the age of 55, with benefits to be paid to your beneficiary.
5. What Benefits Are Available?
The commission decides how it will pay benefits to you. The commission will usually buy an insurance contract that pays money to you in equal amounts over a period of years. There will be at least one payment per year.
You can ask the commission in writing to pay you in a different way. You must give the commission good reasons for changing the way it pays benefits. Good reasons include that you are dying or retired because of a disability. You can ask to be paid in one of the following ways:
A. single payment in cash.
B. Equal cash payments every three months, or a specific percent of your pension account to be paid over no more than five (5) years.
C. Job training early retirement benefits. If you are at least 36 years old and retired from boxing, you can ask the commission to have all or part of your pension benefit paid for school or job training to help you prepare for a different career. If the commission approves your request, it will pay the money directly to the school that you attend. The school has to show the commission that you are actually going to class.
6. What Goes into My Account?
Money contributed by you, managers and promoters before June 17, 1997, as well as by promoters after June 17, 1997 goes into your pension account. The amount placed in your pension account depends upon the number of rounds you fought and the amount of purses paid to you. One-half of the money contributed by promoters is divided among boxers based on the number of scheduled rounds fought in California by each boxer as a percent of the total number of scheduled rounds fought by all boxers in California during a year. The other half is divided based upon the amount of purses received by boxers for fights in California during a year.
For example, if you fought 20 of the total 2,000 rounds of scheduled boxing fought in California during one year, your part is 1% of the amount contributed for total rounds. If you were paid $30,000 in purses out of a total purse amount in California during one year of $900,000, your part would be 3% of the amount contributed for total purses. In addition, money may be added to your pension account from forfeiture of pension accounts of boxers who fail to become eligible for benefits. See "break in service" below.
7. What Happens if I Have a Break in Service?
A break in service means that you failed to fight at least 10 scheduled rounds in California during any 36 months in a row and before you turned 55.
If you have a break in service before you are eligible to receive benefits, then the money in your pension account is taken out and divided among the other boxers. This is called a "forfeiture".
If you have a break in service after you are eligible to receive benefits, then your pension account is put on inactive status. This means you will not continue to share in the division of promoter contributions, but money will still be added to your account from forfeitures, if there are any.
8. Can I Give My Benefits to Someone Else?
You cannot sell, transfer, pledge or in any way give away your benefits to anyone else before they are paid to you. In addition, your benefits cannot be taken from the plan by anyone else to pay for debts, contracts, liabilities or any wrongs you committed. You can, however, choose someone else to receive your benefits upon your death.
9. How Do I Apply for Benefits?
You or your beneficiary can ask the commission for information about rights and benefits and the commission will provide you with a reply in writing within 30 days.
You or your beneficiary must file a written claim for benefits with the commission. The commission must say in writing within 30 days whether the claim is complete. The commission has 60 days after receiving a complete claim to make a decision in writing and provide it to the claimant. If the commission denies your claim for benefits, it must give you the reasons it denied the claim and state the specific parts of the plan on which it based its denial. The commission must also explain how it reviews denied claims.
11. How Do I Ask for Review if a Claim is Denied?
If the commission denies a claim for benefits, you or your beneficiary can ask the commission in writing to review the denial. This request has to be made within 90 days after you receive the denial. The commission must notify the claimant in writing that it has received the request for review and that the person has 30 days to give the commission a written statement and any documents that he or she feels support the claim. The commission must look at the whole record and make a decision no later than 30 days after the person's deadline to give information to the commission. If the commission again denies the claim, its written decision will give you or your beneficiary the same kind of information it gave you the first time the claim was denied.
12. Who Do I Contact for More Information?
You can obtain more information about this pension plan from the California State Athletic Commission. The address and telephone number is: 1424 Howe Avenue, Suite 33Sacramento, CA 95825-3217(916) 263-2195
In an inevitable bureaucratic debacle, a Joint Committee recommended on April 12th, 2005 that the State Athletic Commission should sunset (i.e., disband) and its functions and duties be transferred to the Department of Consumer Affairs. There was plenty of warning, but with no Executive Director in place, too many political appointees, and the Commission seemingly asleep at the switch, it failed to heed the warnings. Perhaps too many of the appointees viewed their four-year appointments as invitations to hobnob with boxing figures and celebrities rather than attend to the business at hand. At any rate, the Joint Committee determined that the Commission had not dealt with certain financial and personnel issues to an acceptable level and had resisted recommendations for needed accounting improvements. Thus, the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has now become the Athletic Commission Program (ACP), with its functions and duties transferred to the California Department of Consumer Affairs. (See ESB article entitled, "California State Athletic Commission turns over the Governance of Boxing to the DOC," 10.05.05).
Without the State Athletic Commission, much of the governance that existed was taken away from the people, as the new arrangement deprives boxers, the promoters, fans, and boxing activist from participating in the decision making process. “It takes away our voice and our knowledge of the sport and turns it over to a bunch of government workers,” asserts Alex Ramos, President and Founder of the Retired Boxers Foundation (RBF). Meantime, there is growing support for a bill championed by Rep. Don Perata, D-Oakland, that would establish a new commission with new standards on Jan. 1, 2007. Let's hope so.
But California DOES have the aforementioned Boxers Pension Plan, and if improved, monitored and administered properly, it could be the conceptual model to place the professional boxer at the same level as other professional athletes. In fact, if the California Boxers Pension Plan was initiated in every state, boxers would retire with a pension they actually might be able to live on. The Boxers Pension is basically financed by the fans--$.89 a ticket—and pays the retired boxer $2 for each round fought in California. For example, the aforementioned Alex Ramos, who often fought in California, is eligible for $154 a month at retirement. Clearly not enough to really help, but if the same were true of New Jersey and New York, states in which he also often fought, he would have a much better retirement indeed.
Along similar lines, an Abstract of Pension Plans for Professional Boxers: A Study Prepared by The Segal Company for the Secretary of Labor as Mandated by Congress (Published in 1998) can be accessed on the web. In brief, this study concluded:
"...... that the individual - rather than team-oriented - nature of the sport, its socioeconomic climate and existing federal laws have operated to inhibit the development of a comprehensive pension plan for professional boxers. The study recommends the establishment of four separate but complementary plans to provide pensions for active and now-retired boxers:
1. A charitable trust designed to help the neediest boxers immediately.
2. A defined contribution plan funded by a percentage of each boxer's purse from each qualifying bout, potentially combined with promoter-paid matching contributions and additional voluntary contributions by the boxer.
3. A defined benefit plan covering all present and former boxers who meet preset minimum participation requirements. This type of plan would guarantee a minimum benefit amount even for boxers who never had a realistic opportunity to plan for their retirement.
4. A disability income/survivors' benefit program to fill in gaps left by the first three plans.
.......because pensions for boxers are now virtually nonexistent, congressional action or collective bargaining will likely be necessary to bring a comprehensive program into existence."
So much for studies or what can be accessed on the Internet or what can be found through simple research. So much for politics and bureaucratic obstacles. Let's focus on providing a dignified retirement for those who thrilled us by risking so much. Think what a breakthrough it would be If every state embraced the kind of program California adopted. How difficult can that be? What's standing in the way? Is anyone out there hearing this? How difficult would it be to research what California has done and then build on it? That other states have not followed suit, at least conceptually, is egregious, if not disgraceful. That his fellow senators have not embraced John McCain's efforts is disgraceful.
If governmental action or collective bargaining seem necessary to bring a comprehensive program into existence, then the focus manifestly should be on Congressional action and the formation of a national boxing commission...as I see little progress being made by the fledgling union known as the Joint Association of Boxers (JAB), an apparent subordinate body of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters. Recognizing that to establish a national commission is easier said then done, I suspect there are plenty of people out there with the qualifications to sit on such a commission, people like Teddy Atlas, Dr. Flip Homansky and former fighter Dave Tiberi. Atlas and Senator John McCain are strong advocates, and McCain might just be able to pull it off. If so, it will be the fighters who win.
In the meantime, people like Alex Ramos and Jacquie Richardson (the Executive Director of the Retired Boxers Foundation) and Gerry Cooney, who started the F.I.S.T. Foundation (Fighter's Initiative for Support and Transition) are filling some important gaps for needy retired fighters,
Let's just get it on!
"All of the sports have a safety net, but boxing is the only sport that has none. So when the fighter is through, he is through. While he was fighting his management was very excited for him, but now that he is done, that management team is moving on.......by the time you're 30 years old, you can be on a nowhere street, if you're not careful." Gerry Cooney
Ted Sares is a Boxing Historian and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.