Unnecessary Roughness

While Mike Shanahan stumps for Pat Bowlen's pro-stadium forces, who are scrambling to replace Mile High, former Bronco James "Jumpy" Geathers wishes they'd lobby for one more thing: a ring for his hand. Geathers, a 6' 7", 300-pound pass-rushing specialist who spent last season on injured reserve, is the lone member of last year's team without a band of Super Bowl glory. Now Geathers is getting some backup from the bench. The NFL Players Association has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging head coach Mike Shanahan with discriminatory practices that violate Geathers's rights under the National Labor Relations Act and the NFL's collective-bargaining agreement. The claim accuses the coach of denying Geathers his ring because Geathers insisted that "as an injured player he be paid his full salary for the 1997 season."

These days, Geathers, a twelve-year NFL vet whose herculean "Fork Lift" move made him a cult hero around the league, is at his home in South Carolina completing rehab on the torn Achilles tendon that sidelined him last year. He's also hoping he'll get a call from a team in need of his services, which makes him reluctant to talk about the details of his case. "I know what happened, but I can't talk about it right yet," says Geathers, in a polite voice that contradicts his bone-crunching gridiron image. "I'm trying to get back in the league, and I don't want the NFL coming down on me. But there was a little conflict between me and Mike, and all the other guys on injured reserve got rings, but I didn't."

According to an NFLPA source who requested anonymity, Geathers's dilemma began in November of last year, when Shanahan asked him to take a pay cut or a deferral so the team could make maneuvers under the league's salary cap. Geathers reportedly responded to this request by saying, "Don't take this personally, coach--I don't mean to insult you or the team--but this is business, and I think I'm entitled to my salary when it's coming to me, unless you want to pay interest on the money that I'm deferring." This stance allegedly irked Shanahan, and for the rest of the year, Geathers was given the cold shoulder by Shanahan. In addition to having to pay for his plane fare to San Diego for the Super Bowl, he was reluctantly given cheap seats for the game and had to pay for the Super Bowl souvenirs given free to the other Broncos. Geathers was released by the team in mid-February.

This summer, the Broncos seemed to undergo a change of heart regarding Geathers's ring. In June, the player was contacted by the team's front office and asked for his ring size; he was also told he would be flown to Denver for the awards ceremony. (Super Bowl rings are estimated to cost a team between $5,000 and $6,000 each; the retail value, should a player decide to sell his ring, has been reported to be around $35,000.) But when Geathers followed up on the call a few weeks later, he was told to speak to Shanahan. The coach reportedly told Geathers, "Jumpy, don't take this personally, but this is business. You're not getting a Super Bowl ring. You didn't help us when we needed it, and we're not helping you now."

"I didn't think this was an elective thing, that you could pick and choose who you wanted to give rings to," notes Geathers's agent, Brett Senior. "And Jumpy's not a problem guy. He's got a great reputation around the league."

According to Tim English, the NFLPA representative handling Geathers's case, players on injured reserve normally get Super Bowl rings, although they are not specifically covered in league policy. "That's the usual practice--that people on injured reserve get the ring," English says. "But there's nothing in the collective-bargaining agreement that talks about Super Bowl rings, so that ring would probably be characterized as a prerogative that players usually get every year."

The issue, English says, is that Shanahan withheld Geathers's ring in retaliation for Geathers's refusal to take the pay cut or deferral.

"Where federal law comes in," he says, "is that an employer cannot discriminate or retaliate against an employee for enforcing his rights under the collective-bargaining agreement. And basically, that's what Jumpy was doing by insisting on his right to receive full pay. We're acting because we think the player's rights were infringed upon, and we want to make sure he gets treated like everyone else, especially in the area of insisting on his rights under the contract. That's what contracts are for--so people uphold them."

English says that the NFLPA contacted the Broncos in an attempt to resolve the conflict but that the team would not settle. The NLRB is now investigating the NFLPA's claim and hopes to conclude its investigation in the next six weeks. The Broncos refuse to comment. "This is an internal matter," says team spokesman Paul Kirk, "and we don't generally comment on internal matters."

For Geathers, who owns one Super Bowl ring from his days with the Washington Redskins, the fact that his tenure with the Broncos has ended in such a fashion is not a complete surprise. "The Denver organization--you never could tell about it," says Geathers. "It's just like Bill Clinton--you never know what might happen."

"I couldn't even get a hat from them," he says of his former team (which reportedly gave a second ring to Shannon Sharpe after the Broncos tight end gave his to his brother, Sterling Sharpe, a former Green Bay Packer). "I had to buy that, and I still wear it around because, myself, I think I was a part of the team.

"I don't want to use the word 'discrimination,'" Geathers adds, "but I was the only one who didn't get a ring, and I'm 38 years old, John Elway's age. If John was hurt, would Mike treat him that way? No--and a ring means something to a guy like me, who has played so long. But it's Denver's first Super Bowl, and Jumpy Geathers, I don't mean crap. But I'm a human being like anybody else. So I'm trying to get justice done, because what he's done is not justice.


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