While the end of the National Football League’s labor hostilities was met with cheers this week from sideline to American sideline, my thoughts turned to Dave Duerson’s family. Duerson played 11 NFL seasons as a safety—the sport’s most wide-ranging, hard-hitting defensive position—and was part of Super Bowl-winning teams with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. In February, after reportedly complaining for months of neurological torments—splitting headaches, mood swings, memory loss—Duerson committed suicide at age 50. He left his girlfriend with a final request, to donate his brain to a Boston lab studying head trauma in former athletes, and then shot himself in the heart in order to keep his contribution to science intact.
Duerson’s macabre tale exemplifies the grim backdrop against which football’s most riveting on- and off-field collisions—a 2010 season marked and marred by an alarming spate of vicious head shots and concussions (Google “Austin Collie” or “James Harrison”); the save-our-Sundays pleas from fans and media that went up during the nearly five-month lockout of NFL players by team owners—were played out. The sport’s jarring new calculus, that the impact of every three-yard gain may carry a correlative loss of future neurological well-being, had me inwardly rooting, despite my longtime love of the sport, for a perpetuation of the hiatus. But with the announcement of the details of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, there appears to be at least a glimmer of hope that the NFL might finally be taking credible steps to spare its current players and care for its retired ones.
Football, in many ways, has devolved into a vampiric system, staying eternally youthful by sucking the life force out of each passing generation, each new star replacing a broken-down antecedent with bruise-spotted brain tissue and spotty medical coverage. At the forefront of the concussion findings are Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the Pulitzer-nominated, quasi-activist journalism of The New York Times’ Alan Schwarz. A series of articles by Schwarz, beginning with one in 2007 publicizing the findings of a neuropathologist who posited that football-related brain damage led to the depression and eventual suicide of former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters, have pushed the condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) into the sporting vernacular. Each new finding from the center pushes the game further into the realm of blood sport, in which the modern arena’s attractions are killed not at the point of a sword or lion’s fangs but undone years later, in relative obscurity, by the corrosion of their brain functions.
At their stem, concussions appear an intractable, Newtonian dilemma for the sport: Increasingly massive athletes gathering frightening acceleration deliver, with glinting lowered helmets, ever yet more forceful blows, and those actions have their reactions in cranial reverberations. To the degree that trauma may be inextricable from the sport’s physics, the NFL is treating symptoms to mask the disease. The most recent Band-Aid fixes instituted by the league were a requirement for concussed players to sit out the remainder of the game and receive a doctor’s clearance before returning to action for following contests, as well as steeper fines for dangerous head shots. But neither concussions nor helmet-to-helmet tackles appeared to diminish last season.
It is all too easy and appropriate to mock the brass (or platinum, perhaps) tacks of the recent labor dispute between owners and players, which included such issues as what percentage stake of the sport’s roughly $9 billion-plus revenue pie to allot each side (they altered it from 50-50 to 53-47!) and how many millions in salary to pay rookies. But other merciful and prudent provisions of the deal offer some hope for the future of the behemoth NFL as an enterprise not doomed to a cycle of increasing violence and devastated veterans. The lockout resolution calls for up to an extra $1 billion over the ten-year life of the pact to be allocated for retiree benefits, medical care, and disability plans including the 88 Plan, which specifically treats cases of dementia. The bulk of that funding—$620 million—will go toward the creation of a new Legacy Fund, which bolsters pensions of pre-1993 retirees, from the era before the NFL became a full-steam financial juggernaut. As preventive measures, the new CBA puts limits on pre- and mid-season practice time and contract drills, while proposals to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games were tabled.
This distinctly unglamorous agenda is not for the benefit of football Hall of Famers, the Dan Marinos and Troy Aikmans re-outfitted as chattering heads, or the Jerry Rices and Emmitt Smiths who cha-cha their way into retirement on “Dancing with the Stars.” It is for the football grunts who are brutalized on every play, who face post-playing careers that too often are second-and-short, who travel an educational and career route that does not teach financial planning and often disallows enough earning longevity to pad out a 401(k). It is for the Dave Duersons, who recede from view and waste away in darkened fogs of onrushing dementia.
“[Duerson’s CTE] makes it abundantly clear what the cost of football is for the men who played and the families,” DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the players association, told the Times’ Schwarz in May, as the lockout was in perhaps its most bitter stages. “It seems to me that any decision or course of action that doesn’t recognize that as the truth is not only perpetuating a lie, but doing a disservice to what Dave feared and what he wanted to result from the donation of his brain to science.”
It seems the NFL’s new labor deal, at least modestly in parts, acknowledges those truths of football-related brain traumas and moves to address them. Duerson’s contribution to science, to the understanding of those horrible wounds that may creep through the brain’s fabrics, will prove valuable. And his legacy in creating awareness of the neurological ailments that the game’s savagery inflicts on untold numbers of ex-players, as reflected in the sport’s new programs and standards, may prove more valuable still.
Jonathan Lehman is a sports writer and editor from New York City.