Commentary: The Real Danger of the NFL Life

PBS’ controversial documentary turns late Pittsburgh Steelers star into the face of concussions.

Posted: 10/15/2013 12:33 PM EDT

The figure sounds astounding. You remember the number, right? It was trumpeted across media – to applause and to derision. Yet how does anybody deride $765 million, the money 18,000 retired players accepted to settle their class-action suit against the NFL?

That’s now a much easier question to answer.

All we have to do is watch the PBS Frontline documentary A League of Denial, a deep look into the hidden story of concussions, and we discover straightaway that the stars from NFL past made a lousy bargain. But no amount of dollars can fix the broken bodies and minds among players who are spending their twilight years in sheer agony.

For the first time, a national report put a public face on the issue; the face was that of Mike Webster, the Hall-of-Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their glory days.

Webster, who died in poverty at age 50 in 2002, was a wreck of a man after his career ended. He had lost touch with his family, with his friends, with reality. He could do little for himself, struggling to go forward in life.

To watch the PBS show is to come away shaken, your mind troubled by the fact you enjoyed what men like Webster did during their NFL careers. Those hard hits he and men like the late Jack Tatum exacted on opponents were things we reveled in. We applauded the grotesque brutality of America’s game; we loved the game as we once loved boxing, because we saw men at their base level doing what we dare not do in public: beat each other to a bloody mess.

We often find ourselves saying that those who make a living in brutal sports like football and boxing understand the score. It’s their choice what to do with their bodies; it’s a choice, no doubt, that many of them might make again, which is the pity of it all.

It is impossible for me to know what the solution is. I know we as a society can’t sit back and let the NFL produce more men like Mike Webster. Nor do we have an appetite for seeing all the brutality of the game – the bone-crushing hits that make the highlights on ESPN’s SportsCenter – ratcheted down and the game turned into touch football.

What we should insist upon, however, is that the 18,000 men who have put their minds and bodies at risk for our entertainment, the 18,000 men whom we have worshiped as if they were deities, don’t turn into the living dead – zombies like Webster was – with no safety net underneath them.

Despite our advances in medicine, we can’t unscramble a broken mind like Webster’s was, and we sometimes can’t fix all the broken pieces in a person’s body either. But we should be able to ensure that those 18,000 men – our yesteryear heroes – find their golden years as enriching and bordering on normal as their lives were when they made a living breaking each other’s bones.

It is obvious that we have turned our backs on those men, and we have allowed NFL officials to do the same.

For all the bluster we heard from them after their $765 million settlement with retired players, the pile of millions won’t be enough to put our heroes back together again or to promise that more Mike Websters aren’t out there dying without dignity.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Pittsburgh Steelers)

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