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Evan Weiner: Is Dave Duerson’s Death Just Another Football Casualty?

Mar 1, 2011

Posted with the express consent of Evan Weiner:

THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
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Is Dave Duerson’s death just another football casualty?

By Evan Weiner

February 28, 2011
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As the clock ticks down to the March 3, 11:59 p.m. Eastern National Football League deadline for the players and owners to reach an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement or face a lockout, the suicide death of former Chicago Bears and New York Giants player Dave Duerson should be casting a pall over the talks.

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“Should be” is the operative phrase here but other than some “shock” expressed in the media covering the talks, Duerson’s death seems to be stuff that local news TV news thrives on. The murder, mayhem, sports, entertainment and weather formula seems perfect for what passes as an attempt to inform people. Duerson’s death should be an “Around the Horn” episode on ESPN but that embarrassing program brings out the worst in sportswriters and hits every negative-Oscar Madison stereotype available.

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Duerson will be forgotten soon enough except in rare cases such as Alan Schwarz’s New York Times reporting on head injuries.

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The labor talks are following a script, neither side is budging, the NFL owners want to keep more industry revenue, the players want to keep status quo. The National Labor Relations Board is involved, there is a federal mediator, three United States Senators have weighed in and another Congressman, Lamar Smith, wants no part of the talks. Duerson’s suicide seems to have been an inconvenience but it will not be a factor in the talks.

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Duerson’s death at his own hands should be shaking the entire football industry but the most telling comments about Dave Duerson and football came from his former wife.

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Duerson just seems to be a battlefield casualty like Mike Webster, Andre Waters and others.

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A proud warrior.

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“Discarded” NFL players apparently don’t have easy transitions into the “civilian” world because of the battering they took while playing the sport. It seems the issue of players safety was settled in 1905 after President Theodore Roosevelt pressured a few college presidents into cleaning up the game after the deaths of 18 players in college games and the maiming of others.

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Players safety doesn’t seem to have been much of a priority on any level, whether it is high school, college or the National Football League. The NFL has been very slow to get into the players safety issue and the league is finally addressing head issues 105 years after President Roosevelt made the issue of player safety part of his presidency.

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The NFL is now urging all 50 states to take a very close look at head injuries suffered in high school and other football programs for children. Whether it is lip service or not, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent out 44 letters to states urging them to enforce strict surveillance of head injuries. The league is continuing to beef up head injury protocol but that is for future generations. But the League is not taking responsibility for past injuries.

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The National Football League Players Association seems to be on the sideline in at least making players more aware of head injuries. Some players were upset when the NFL increased safety procedures last fall and threatened to fine players for hits.

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Nor is college football, although the NCAA owns Oscar Robertson’s basketball likeness from his days at the University of Cincinnati in perpetuity. Robertson last played for the University of Cincinnati 51 years ago. If the NCAA owns the Big O and every other college athletes’ likeness, they should also own head injuries suffered by those who never played three years in the NFL. But the chances are the NCAA will ignore the perpetuity issue when it comes to health benefits.

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Robertson has joined a class suit against the NCAA that was started by Ed O’Bannon in 2009 which states that the NCAA “has illegally deprived former student-athletes from “myriad revenue streams including “DVDs, video games, memorabilia, photographs, television rebroadcasts and use in advertising.”

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The NCAA contends it has the rights to the likenesses and the NCAA’s Collegiate Licensing Company will continue to use the likenesses.

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The NFL (and probably the high school, college, minor league football, Arena Football League, All American Football Conference, American Football League, World Football League and United States Football League) battlefield is lined with casualties. There are too many stories involving Duerson, Webster, and others who died far too young. There are others who are around who tell of their problems like George Visger, Dave Pear and Brent Boyd. And there are many others who can’t or will not speak out.

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The wives are talking though.

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You need to go to Facebook to find out what they are saying and sportswriters whose main jobs are to glorify the macho men of fall — the Sunday gladiators — are missing a great story. The wives have become the caretakers and the United States government is providing money for players who are disabled through Social Security and Medicare.

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There is a very sad irony in Duerson’s suicide that has not gone unnoticed by ex-players like Boyd.

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Duerson was on the National Football League Players Association Retirement Board and was one of the people around the NFL who did not believe playing football and getting concussions had anything to do with problems in football’s afterlife. He was among the trustees who said no to players claims for disability.

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Duerson shot himself in the chest and left his brain intact. He apparently left instructions that the brain should be donated for testing at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. The researchers will look for chronic traumatic encephalopathy in (CTE) in Duerson’s brain. CTE has been found in the brains of other deceased football players and other athletes by researchers.

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Those with CTE can suffer from depression, aggression leading the person to drug usage and possibly suicide.

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The NFL has given the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine a million dollars to study the deceased players brains. The researchers are trying to find out if CTE is a result of one concussion or the cumulative effect of repeated blows to the head.

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Duerson’s post NFL career downward spiral doesn’t seem to deviate from other former players. There were family problems, money problems, business failure and mental problems that seem to be in line with other tragedies.

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Who should have taken care of these players who left it all on the field for football?

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It would be very easy to blame National Football League owners. But the National Football League Players Association failed association members. The “Money Now” chant during the 1982 NFL strike in retrospect was stupid. The players should have been looking at their football afterlife and not worry about accumulating as much money as possible over a short time period. The Players Association heads like Ed Garvey and Gene Upshaw and the players business agents didn’t have the players best interest in mind in formulating the association’s working condition bargaining strategy.

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Their mantra seemed to be “show me the money” and “damn the future.”

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Even though Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, a former player with eight years in the league, said something totally inane to Freakonomics Radio and Stephen J. Dunbar, don’t place the onus on the owners entirely on the fate of the discarded players. The majority of the blame has to fall on the association negotiators who never took former players into account at the bargaining table and never explained to the mid-1970s group of players of the 1982 or 1987 grouping or even the 1993 association members that short term goal of getting the most money possible is great but we need to look at the long term.

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Murphy comments were eye opening though because he was a former NFLPA member.

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“You know, right now our current players, if they’re vested – and you vest if you play three or more seasons – you get health insurance coverage for five years, which is great. But I look at it, too, and the transition for players from playing in the NFL to finding another career and establishing themselves is very difficult, and I really wonder, sometimes, if we do too much for the players. They’ve got severance pay and a 401(k) plan,” said Murphy in Dunbar’s podcast. “I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes it’s not all bad, and going back and talking to some of the players who played for Lombardi in the ‘60s — you know, they worked in the off-seasons, and they made a very smooth transition into their second careers because they had to. And so I’m a little worried that if we do too much for players in terms of compensation after their career’s end, and health insurance — it’s not all bad to have an incentive to get a job. And, so those are just some of the things we’re thinking through and talking through.”

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Murphy should tell that to Boyd, to Visger (who never qualified for a pension or health benefits because he was not in the league long enough), Pear and the others who are broken down and the wives as well. But as a company CEO, it is not Murphy’s place to just give out benefits, given the United States doesn’t have universal health care like other countries such as Canada and the UK to name two.

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That is why collective bargaining is so important even though Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (Murphy is in Green Bay, Wisconsin) doesn’t agree. The onus falls on negotiators in collective bargaining. There is a responsibility on both sides to cut the best deal possible.

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Workers have to bargain for their health care and that is where the National Football League Players Association has suffered a totally failure of responsibility. Years ago, former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson complained about the severance package and not much has been done to help former NFL players and it is not because the NFL doesn’t have money.

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Here is where the football wives can come in and create havoc for everyone. They could start talking. There are shows like Oprah, maybe Anderson Cooper’s new daily program that starts where the 2011 season is supposed to begin and they need to start talking openly like Alicia Duerson.

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Facebook conversations between the wives of former players also reveal something rather interesting.

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The former players were the Big Men on Campus, the macho men, the men who could show no weakness and were proud individuals. That trait hasn’t disappeared. There seems to be shame associated with failing bodies and that may be a major hurdle for the former players. The men were supermen on the field and the injuries became kryptonite for them.

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“We don’t hear about them, because they quietly suffer, “said one football wife. “We’ll keep looking for them, but in many if not most cases, I believe it will be a female who leads us to them.”

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That much is true. Recently this reporter got an e-mail from a wife who said, “My husband played in the mid 70′s to 80,” said the wife whose name will not be revealed. “We just saw results of neck MRI yesterday. — Not good, but helps explain severe headaches. He remembers the game the injury took place and he could not move his legs and arms the next day. The teams reassuring remark to him was, get better because you have to play the next week!

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“Five years ago he was diagnosed with brain damage. Trying to get NFL to agree there’s physical, long-term injuries in past NFL players is nearly impossible. They just keep appointing another committee to look into the matter.”

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Alicia Duerson told the NBC TV affiliate in Chicago that during her husband’s career that “multiple times she had to drive her husband home after games because he was dizzy, nauseous, or just not feeling quite right.

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“It happened in New York (playing for the Giants) and Chicago (Bears) as well.”

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But there was also something else that Alicia Duerson said that eerily sounded like it came from the mouth of other former players who will tell you things in confidence once you know the individual.

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“He talked to me a lot about blurred vision, and he had to go somewhere in the city and he couldn’t remember how to get there. It was frustrating for him that he couldn’t remember how to get there,” she said.

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That particular story has been repeated by others who are in their 50′s and played in the NFL.

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The Duersons divorced not long after Dave Duerson threw his wife against a wall at the University of Notre Dame in February 2005. Duerson was charged with misdemeanor battery and lost his seat as a Notre Dame trustee.

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Duerson’s physical problems came out long after his career was done. His post-career benefits were long gone. His case is not atypical in the football world. In many ways, Duerson is not a special case. In about six months, researchers will determine where Duerson suffered from CTE.

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The NFLPA never took medical problems into account in 1982 when the cry was “Money Now.” DeMaurice Smith, when he was appointed Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association, said he would take care of the former players and they would be welcomed back to the association. That has not happened yet according to a number of former players.

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It seems not much has changed since 1982 and “Money Now.”

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Evan Weiner

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at www.bickley.com or amazonkindle. He can be reached at evanjweiner@yahoo.com
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6 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Mike Augustyniak
    March 1st, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    Mike Augustyniak

    Great article.

    Well done, Evan!

    Mike Augustyniak
    New York Jets
    1981 – 1983

  2. Dave Pear
    March 1st, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Thanks again, Evan, for your insightful article.

    It would be very eye-opening to have the wives go on the Oprah Show or Dr. Phil to tell their stories (nightmares) of the NFL disability debacle once their husband and father of their children became injured.

    Mark Murphy, who is now the CEO and president of the Green Bay Packers and a retired players makes some very outrageous statements about injured retired players. I would like to first congratulate the Packers on their Super Bowl victory and a great game!

    But wasn’t Mark Murphy the guy who tried to save a few dollars and leave a dozen or so of the very players home who helped the Packers go to the Super Bowl and even try to leave them out of the Super Bowl team picture? Until one of these players started sending this plot around on the Internet. Mark, you’re acting more like an owner than a retired player. How soon you forgot.

    You did play in the NFL for 11 years but were only a journeyman player. However, you became the CEO and President of the Packers (which is quite a feat).

    You talked about players receiving 401-K’s, severance packages and 5 years of medical after football. You certainly can’t be talking about the pre-1993 players because WE never received any of those benefits! NONE.

    Does it really matter if a player is vested or not as to whether he receives disability benefits? Only in the NFL – NOT in the rest of corporate America.

    On a personal note, let me touch on my career in the NFL: I played 6 years as a nose tackle. It was when chop blocks were legal and even encouraged by opposing coaches to slow down or injure the opposing team players.

    In 1979, I herniated a disc in my neck and was encouraged to continue playing by the owner of the Raiders, Al Davis, which I regrettably did and in 1981, I finally went to hospital on my own and had this bulging disc drilled out with a hand drill. Then, even though I was rated 85% or greater disabled in 1995, I was still denied disability benefits and told to get a sedentary job. What kind of work was that supposed to be?

    However, while I was playing I did receive a few awards and I’ll only name a few of them because if Johnny Unitas was even denied his disability benefits, then how could a lowly nose tackle expect full disability benefits? Especially with the likes of you trashing your former teammates?

    I was selected to the All Pro team twice and I played in one Pro Bowl and a Super Bowl. I was also selected the MVP of a team 3 times. And I was named by Strength and Health Magazine as one of the 10 strongest players in the NFL because I was able to bench press 500 lbs without the use of steroids.

    Having said all that, I wish I had never played because it wasn’t worth the price. And with the likes of Gene Upshaw, Al Davis or John Madden, I would never even want to be considered for the Hall of Fame because I don’t respect these humbugs and want nothing to do with them.

    My achievements as a player may even look appealing (especially to young people) but you’re starting to sound like Dave Duerson in 2007. You may or may not be the gangster Upshaw was, but you certainly forgot your football brothers along the way as you climbed the corporate ladder in the NFL.

    Oh – and by the way. The pre-1993 players may have been forgotten by the NFL and the likes of you but we’re certainly not going away until we’re vindicated and paid restitution. ALL of us.

    As a matter of fact, YOU are a pre-1993 player, Mark, but it always seems that we’re family until you split the money up (just like Gene Upshaw did), right? It’s obvious you’ve learned from the best.

    Regards,
    Dave & Heidi Pear

  3. Ron Pritchard
    March 1st, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Ron Pritchard Bengals

    God bless you, Evan! You have a gift of writing and every time I read your stuff, the passion comes through. Thank you for not fearing some sort of backlash for your truth and insights to these horrible problems that can be fixed. Yet some folks just will not face the wrong that they do to make them right!

    Regards,
    Ron Pritchard
    Houston Oilers, Cincinnati Bengals
    1969 – 1977

  4. Fred Barnett
    March 2nd, 2011 at 5:57 am #

    Fred Barnett

    Well stated, as we wait for a change!

    Fred Barnett
    Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins
    1990-1997

  5. Mike Davis
    March 2nd, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Mike Davis Block

    Evan Weiner no doubt has earned his place as a world-class writer.

    On that note, I’d like to focus on the statement regarding the current NFLPA’s commitment to former players. I, for one, regardless of what he qouted saying some players disagree with the NFLPA shunning former players… That as it may be, is an opinion.

    Again, I met DeMaurice Smith shortly after his hiring. I have spent some quality time with him on Capitol Hill, Player Conventions and visits to Arizona. He has been a man of his word – I have confidence in him and I trust him.

    I was there in the active players’ meeting when each Player Rep & Executive Board member voted unamously to include former players on their board and include the needs & upgrades the Former players so deserve.

    I asked a few of the active players after the vote how serious they will be committed to this when CBA talks start. Each said, “We will be retired players soon.”

    As far as Dave Duerson is concerned, I did not agree with his decisions on turning down players’ disability applications that were real and needed. Forgive me for saying this because Dave was a friend. Perhaps the NFL knew just what they had in Dave. (Please – no retorts. I’m truly not trying to be a hater or mean-spirited.)

    Now for the Breaking News that we already know and have known for years…. News Flash… The NFL with its work force (the Players) which is very small in numbers compared to other corporations: Why are there such an astronomical number of severe injuries that are life-threating and debilitating to nearly all their employees working on the field. Just taking an educated guess compared to other industries, OSHA would have stepped in 50 years ago and shut the NFL down. Because too many of their employees suffer from the same injuries year-after-year at an alarming rate. Are we really ready to discuss that?

    I also agree with the idea of the wives getting together – when that happens they’ll be better than CNN! Yes, bring in Oprah, go on The View. Boy, will the sparks fly. But then, be ready to battle the well-oiled NFL PR Machine.

    But all in all, the people will get it and ask questions. The Fans as well. But they’ll still be salivating, waiting for the season to start. This, my friends, is the trump card the NFL has and always counts on.

    You know, I was thinking: Every company out there wants a deal with the NFL. The new agreement the NFL just signed with Budweiser is for $1.6 Billion over 6 years! Would that be nice way to fund retired players’ benefits with increases as well as active players’ benefits because it’s all gravy for the League. As for all the other companies clamoring to do a deal with the NFL, I say, “Do the deal.” The NFL keeps saying to the fans, “We have to raise ticket prices because the players are greedy & unreasonable.” As Dick Emburg always said, “Oh, My!” and Keith Jackson says, “Whoa Nellie!” Heck, just make a few more Corporations and products ‘Official This’ and ‘Official That’ to the NFL… and all the players cost will be somewhat met.

    Hmm… Let’s get back to that. Or does it make too much sense?

    Mike L. Davis
    Oakland Raiders
    1977 – 1987

  6. George Visger
    March 4th, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    George Visger

    Well said, Mike and Dave,

    It’s unfortunate but money is one of the greatest character separators in the world. As a biologist, I occasionally get stuck in a lab mixing various compounds, hoping to separate elements from the mix. This can be a multi-step process.

    When separating people’s character, it’s a no-brainer (no pun intended). Just toss a few $$$$ into the mix and watch who’s willing sell their mothers soul. Pretty easy to see who has character and who is a character.

    Anyone who played this game is used to being hurt. Problem is it hurts most when it’s from one of your own.

    George Visger
    San Francisco 49ers 1980 & 1981
    Survivor of 9 NFL-Caused Emergency VP Shunt Brain Surgeries
    Benefactor of ZERO NFL Benefits

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