There is an old expression about NFL players: When you sign a pro football contract, you sign away your right to be middle-aged.
Many NFL players seem to drift overnight from being robust young men in their 20s and 30s to appearing staggered and elderly once they hit their 40s.
This isn’t about superficial appearance, of arthritic knuckles or the altered gait that comes with age. It’s about the long-term effects of brain injury and concussions. As William C. Rhoden wrote in the New York Times, “The legion of retired players has become a haunting presence for the National Football League and especially for the N.F.L. Players Association, which keeps one foot in and one foot out of the retired players’ lives.”
The health consequences of high-impact sports is not just an issue for old timers. Increasing numbers of present-day players are reckoning with the short- and long-term consequences of concussions and cranial trauma. This is partly because there is far more research and awareness about concussive injury. But the game is changing: Players today are bigger, stronger and faster than even ten years ago. In 1989, fewer than ten players weighed more than 300 pounds. Now there are more than 450. Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor weighs 235 pounds and runs forty yards in less than 4.5 seconds. His job as safety is to do more than protect his defensive backs: It’s to find people with the ball and with his scary combination of speed and power, remove their senses from their body. So the issue of possible trauma is not just for players who retired long ago.
This hit home when retired Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006 at the age of 44. The coroner’s report revealed that Waters had the brain tissue of an 85-year-old man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Waters’s horror story is only one of many. And the tragedy of the walking wounded was on full display this week in the halls of Congress, where a hearing was held regarding the condition of NFL vets.
Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, set the tone early on, observing that the NFL was a “billion-dollar industry and yet the players who built the league are too often left to fend for themselves.”
Central to the hearing was former Chicago Bears Head Coach Mike Ditka, who said, “I just think that to go back and pick up these people and take care of them is not that big a problem. It’s right versus wrong, period.”
But it’s not so simple. A group of NFL vets have seized upon this atmosphere in recent weeks to reframe the debate from what the game owes these players to what the NFL Players Association–the union–is not doing for those retired with injuries. Led by Hall of Famers Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure, their push has been for the removal of NFLPA President Gene Upshaw. A movement that should be advocating for the rights of retired players is beginning to look like a move to discredit and weaken the union, while the owners kick back and allow the carnage to proceed.