Time will tell if Dave Duerson is remembered as the man who pushed the National Football League to more seriously address the issue of head injuries. Duerson, 50, committed suicide last Thursday with a gunshot wound to the chest. He left a note asking that his brain be examined by researchers studying the effects of head injuries on players.
When researchers at Boston University announce their findings, we may learn that Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition that has been connected to depression, dementia, and suicide.
In Duerson’s era, many games were played on rock-hard Astroturf. Another athlete from that era, Andre Waters—who, like Duerson, played the ironically named position of safety—committed suicide in 2006. Researchers found Waters, 46, suffered from CTE and had the brain of an 80-year-old.
The NFL must do more to protect men like Duerson and Waters, who gave their lives to the game. Duerson, a Notre Dame graduate who became a successful businessman after football, struggled mightily in his final years. The two-time Super Bowl champion, with the 1985–1986 Bears and the 1990–1991 Giants, ended up auctioning off his assets, losing his home and divorcing his wife. He argued publicly that the NFL wasn’t doing enough to help retired players with health problems. He reportedly told others he believed he suffered from CTE. Still, his suicide came as a shock.
“This whole thing has the whole union community pretty shaken up,” George Attalah, an NFL players association official, told The New York Times.
The entire football establishment should be shaken to its core. Violent, head-on collisions at high speed are cheered by fans, replayed constantly on TV and even glorified in video games like the “Madden” series marketed by the NFL. But those collisions take a heavy toll. Those are real bodies being broken, real brains being scrambled. Many former players like Duerson, an 11-year pro, are never the same again.
In response to outspoken ex-players like Duerson and Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Harry Carson, the NFL donated $1 million to the Boston University research program. Since 2007, the league has funded the 88 Plan, which helps families handle the cost of caring for loved ones with dementia. Eighty-eight was the number worn by Hall of Famer John Mackey, who has dementia.
But the NFL is a $9-billion-a-year industry. The league needs to spend much more to help retired players with injuries, and to develop safer helmets, and to teach players—from youth leagues to the pros—not to use their helmets as weapons. Penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits need to be more severe. In the wake of Duerson’s death, the NFL must act forcefully to make sure that careers such as his were not in vain.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
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