A few months after former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson committed suicide in February at age 50, researchers at Boston University confirmed that he had suffered from a form of dementia that has been linked to repeated brain trauma.
Until recently, the skeletons in the NFL’s closet were easier to hide. Sure, something stunk, but no one quite knew what it was. But now players from the 1980s and ’90s are turning up dead. And it’s pretty hard to ignore the questions that spring from the shocking fact that the same brain disease that afflicted Duerson has been confirmed in at least twenty recently deceased players.
Why is it that men who were the strongest and fittest people alive when they were young degenerate so quickly? That’s the million-dollar question. Ask NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and you won’t even get an answer. I guess I don’t really blame him. What can he do, agree with the critics? Yup, football kills.
One of the NFL’s latest plays, finalized in labor talks this past March, was to change the kickoff rules. Now the ball will be kicked off from the thirty-five-yard line, and the kickoff team will get only a five-yard running start instead of the unlimited start it had before (which rarely amounted to more than ten yards). This was all created by the “competition committee,” a group of NFL coaches and executives who tweak the rules every year based on perceived trends and public relations needs.
For example, in 2009 the competition committee eliminated the “wedge” from kickoff returns. I recall one member citing Kevin Everett’s 2007 spinal injury as an example of the perils of wedge returns. I was playing in that game in Buffalo when Kevin broke his neck, and I watched the play happen. The Bronco returner chose to carry the ball outside the wall of interlocked players, away from the “wedge” blocking formation that is now banned. He and Kevin Everett collided in a very routine football hit. The result was far from routine. By all accounts, Kevin nearly died on the field that day.
In a move that would symbolize the league’s strategy in dealing with player health, the NFL made an arbitrary change to the rules, hoping that eliminating wedges would come across as a genuine attempt to protect players. This new kickoff rule smells exactly the same. Knowing the wide reach of sports media, committee members find forums on lapdog platforms like ESPN, the NFL Network and Pro Football Talk, and speak in earnest about their concern for player safety. They say they understand that players don’t like it, but, Geez guys, we’re looking out for you!
If that were true, players would be better cared for when their bodies begin to fall apart in early middle age. They are forgotten on purpose because acknowledging the health issues of former players draws attention to a dirty little secret: when you sacrifice your body for the game, your brain goes with it. According to the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris, retired NFL players are more likely than similarly aged men to develop mild cognitive impairment, a form of dementia that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. But don’t look to us for help. You’re on your own now, buddy. Unless you can still play, that is. Think you’ve got some juice left in the tank?
Under the recently expired collective bargaining agreement, vested players received five years of postfootball health coverage. So right about the time the player dug himself out of the hole he’d been living in after he realized his life peaked in his 20s, his healthcare ran out. And the real problems don’t show up for twenty years anyway—plenty of time for him to be forgotten. (Players now have the option of buying into the NFL’s health policy for life.)
For current players, the hypocrisy is equally disturbing. Players have little control over their bodies; they are the property of the team. When a player is injured, he is rushed back onto the field by an athletic trainer who is being pressured by the coach to get his guys playing again. The rehabilitation and surgical approaches for injuries are often decided by team doctors and trainers who are paid by the organization and have no vested interest in the long-term health of the man who is hurt.
Every day, players are risking long-term injury by rushing themselves back on the field after being hurt. The average NFL career lasts only 3.5 years, and the window of opportunity to carve out a roster spot is dangerously thin. Minimum salary goes up with experience, so the trend is to push out the veterans and bring in younger, cheaper labor.
Injured players are strapping it up every day because they are told by medical staff, voices they should be able to trust, that their injuries should be healed by now. And “split” clauses in many contracts severely cut pay if the player goes on injured reserve. In other words, players are punished for getting hurt and rewarded for acting like they’re not even when they are.
Compounding the problematic medical approach to injury treatment is an institutional pressure not to be a “pussy.” How tough are you? Can you play on that broken ankle? That separated shoulder? With that concussion? Your headaches are gone, right? Because this is glory, son. This is what people will remember you for. And besides, if you can’t suck it up and get it done, then we’ll find someone else who can. Test an athlete like that, and of course he’s going to make every effort to play.
But at what price comes the glory? And what glory is this, anyway, when no one can even remember who won the Super Bowl two years ago? The train keeps moving along, pausing only to refuel with new talent and lose the dead weight of broken bodies. But our football-adoring society sees only the refueling, because the NFL carefully crafts that image. For every rookie who makes a team this season, a veteran loses his job forever and packs his bag for a lifetime of physical pain. You’d think the NFL would try to lighten that load. But you’d be wrong.