WASHINGTON - NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and players' union head Gene Upshaw met with nearly a dozen former players Tuesday to discuss a new joint effort to look into disability pay and health care for retirees.
Afterward, it was Michael Vick whose current off-field troubles became the focus of Goodell's news conference. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback was told to stay away from training camp after being indicted on federal charges of sponsoring a dogfighting operation.
Goodell wasn't surprised which topic drew more questions.
'From the moment you read that indictment, it turns your stomach,' the commissioner said. 'There's obviously a great deal of interest in this. It struck very much an emotional chord. We hear our fans very clearly.'
The pension and disability systems haven't drawn nearly the attention Vick's case has, of course, but Goodell and Upshaw have faced criticism from past players. Upshaw billed Tuesday's nearly three-hour session at union headquarters as the first meeting of an NFL-NFLPA alliance that also includes the Hall of Fame and NFL Alumni.
'Some great work has been done before this,' Goodell said, 'and this is a natural evolution of trying to do things better.'
The three main issues discussed Tuesday were joint replacement surgery, cardiovascular care and assisted living.
'The most important thing about what is taking place today is this group of retired players and the players union understands the plight of retired players and we want to work as a single voice, a single group, to improve the plight of retired players,' Upshaw said. 'We care about them.'
Former players who attended included Jack Kemp, Frank Gifford, Cornelius Bennett, Merlin Olsen, Steve Largent and Jerry Kramer.
'I'm very encouraged with the meeting. We made some significant progress. I think we have a way's to go,' Kramer said. 'I don't think we could solve all the problems in one fell swoop and one afternoon meeting, but we have started on the problems.'
Some retired players have been openly critical of the NFL and the union over the amount of money older retirees get from a $1.1 billion fund set aside for disability and pensions.
Two of the most vocal critics, Mike Ditka and Bernie Parrish, weren't present Tuesday.
'We're beyond all of the name-calling,' Upshaw said. 'We are now in the process of doing.'
Goodell described the new effort as something 'where players can come and get private, confidential assistance or be directed where they can get that through our system, a way to create a single funding source where we can pool our efforts ... and find new revenue that can go into this fund.'
He and Upshaw also spoke about the importance of research to find out what former players need what sort of assistance.
'What we need to do is communicate better with one another and communicate better with the former players to try to be responsive to their needs,' Goodell said.
And, with that, the questions about Vick began.
Goodell said he might meet with Vick, and that he wasn't sure how long the league's review of the case would take. Upshaw said the NFLPA has 'had a number of calls. We've had every kind of e-mail you can think of, and they're not good. They're not good at all. Obviously this has struck a nerve.'
Goodell was asked whether it's a priority to wrap up the league's review of Vick's case before the regular season begins.
'It's a priority to get all the facts as clear as possible as quickly as possible. We are well aware of the fact the season is fast approaching,' Goodell said. 'We would like our fans talking about football rather than this kind of an issue.'