The suicide of Dave Duerson, a long-time National Football League Players Association stalwart, came during a collective bargaining impasse between the union and the owners. The sad truth revealed by the maudlin first round of reaction to the news that Duerson probably had severe brain damage from football concussions – something postmortem study will have to confirm – is that these contract negotiations do not, in the familiar idiom, simply pit greedy billionaires against greedy millionaires. Rather, they pit billionaires who know what they’re doing against millionaires who don’t have a clue.
That’s the only logical conclusion I can draw from the fact that Duerson, while losing his Goliath post-NFL career food distribution business, plunging into personal bankruptcy, seeing his house seized by a bank, and getting arrested for beating his wife – all among the telltale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – was being appointed by the Players Association as one of the trustees of a league fund, jointly administered by management and union, to compensate retired players with disability claims. These included since 2007, under the “88 Plan,” claims for reimbursement of acute care expenses for players with dementia.
Who needed a fox guarding the chicken coop when there was a hypermacho-enabling union more focused on the fair division of the NFL’s $9 billion revenue pie than on whether its members worked under conditions that would give them a reasonable expectation of living and functioning past age 50?
No doubt Duerson had the best of intentions for his fellow athletes when he insisted, both on the NFL Player Care panel and in Senate Commerce Committee testimony, that ex-Minnesota Viking lineman Brent Boyd’s mental illness in his forties wasn’t proven to be football-related. Duerson pointed out that his own father had Alzheimer’s disease, in his late seventies or eighties, yet had never played football!
But sincere or not, we now also know more than just that Duerson’s argument was nuts. He was, too. Cognitively impaired. Of diminished capacity. Lacking responsible judgment. All from the very phenomenon on which he was himself instrumental in making crucial administrative-legal rulings – a role for which, in retrospect, he was clearly incompetent.
That’s why I say enough with the media’s Duerson pity party. If his friends and loved ones take comfort that his donated brain will contribute to public awareness of CTE, then by all means give them their soft landing.
But the powers-that-be, in both the NFL and the NFLPA? Not so fast. Duerson was no hero, any more than World Wrestling Entertainment star Chris Benoit, who murdered his family and killed himself, and has been shown to have had CTE, was a hero. There were already dozens of confirmed cases of CTE, and undoubtedly hundreds of other unreported or ill-reported cases, by the time Duerson put a gun to his chest.
If we’re really intent on honoring Dave Duerson, then let’s put some substance on his legacy. I have a three-point plan. We can call it the Double D Three-Point Stance.
REOPEN ALL REJECTED DISABILITY CLAIMS BY RETIRED PLAYERS. The NFL’s Brian McCarthy told me that 11 of 170 ex-players’ claims submitted so far under the 88 Plan were rejected. (Eight applications are pending.) I believe Duerson participated in all of the negative votes of the six-person panel. I’m sure that, even as I write this, lawyers for these players’ families are preparing new litigation arguing that the evidence of Duerson’s incompetence should invalidate the disability plan decisions. Instead of fighting a legal war of attrition over the inevitable, NFL Player Care should concede the morally obvious and order immediate “replay review” of the rejected 11.
DOUBLE 88 PLAN OUTREACH AND BENEFITS. The plan – named for Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who wore uniform No. 88 – grants up to $88,000 a year in reimbursement for the medical expenses of dementia victims. At Duerson’s funeral Saturday in Chicago, his son Brock said the family would be setting up a foundation to aid players with mental illness. But hey, let’s cut out the middle man here. To date, NFL Player Care has distributed around $7 million under the 88 Plan. In their contract talks, let the NFL and the NFLPA take off the table enough crumbs from their $9 billion food fight to double the size of the disability fund endowment and benefits.
GIVE FANS AND SPONSORS OWNERSHIP OF PLAYER CARE. This is the hardest one for me to talk about in specifics at this point. But nothing will get the league and the players’ union to take meaningful action until fans pull their heads out of their hero-worshipping butts and start taking responsibility for the human and societal costs of their entertainment. One possible idea: There is much promising research on the efficacy of Omega-3 supplements in reversing or at least slowing brain damage. Fan groups could raise money for distributing free supplies to NFL alumni – and also pressure beer companies, which tag “drink responsibly” bromides onto their wall-to-wall football telecast commercials, to pitch in, too.
While I was filing this piece with Beyond Chron on Sunday night, obsessed fans were already turning the page on Duerson and refocusing on the disgusting meat rack that is the NFL pre-draft combine coverage. (Where is Jesse Jackson when you really need him for an observation on how the big-time sports system is just like an antebellum plantation?)
As millions pondered Cam Newton’s flexing pecs and stopwatch reading in the 40-yard dash, a report out of Canada said that former NFL and Canadian Football League defensive back Ricky Bell died ten days ago at age 36. Bell’s girlfriend and mother in South Carolina declined to comment on the cause of death.
Irvin Muchnick (http://muchnick.net; http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com; http://twitter.com/irvmuch) is author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.Filed under: Archive