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Dave Duerson’s Death: Symptom or Coincidence?


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.

“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. As the 24 hour news cycle moves on; however, Duerson will be forgotten soon enough except in rare cases such as Alan Schwarz’s New York Times reporting on head injuries.

The labor talks are following a script.  Neither side is budging; the NFL owners want to keep more industry revenue while 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.

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

“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.

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 time in office.  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.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent out 44 letters to states urging them to enforce strict surveillance of head injuries (whether this is mere lip service remains to be seen). 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.

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 began to fine players for hits.

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, such as George Visger, Dave Pear and Brent Boyd. And there are many others who can’t or will not speak out.

The wives are talking though.  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.

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

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.

Those with CTE can suffer from depression, aggression and drug abuse.  They may be far more prone to suicide than other adults of a similar age.  The NFL is giving 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.

Duerson’s downward spiral following his playing career doesn’t seem to be any different from other former players. There were family problems, money problems, business failure and mental problems that seem to be in line with other tragedies.  Who should have taken care of these players who left it all on the field for football?

It would be very easy to blame National Football League owners for these problems. But the National Football League Players Association failed association members. The “Money Now” chant during the 1982 NFL strike in retrospect was ill advised.  The players should have been looking at their football afterlife and not worried about accumulating as much money as possible over a short time period. The Players Association heads, 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. Their mantra seemed to be “show me the money” and “damn the future.”

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 for 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 the short term goal of getting the most money possible is great but we need to look at the long term.

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

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) and the others who are broken down and the wives as well  That is why collective bargaining is so important even though Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker doesn’t agree. The onus falls on negotiators in collective bargaining. There is a responsibility on both sides to cut the best deal possible.

Workers have to bargain for their health care and that is where the National Football League Players Association has failed in its 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; but not because the NFL didn’t have the money.

Here is where the football wives could come in and create havoc for everyone.   There are many TV talk shows on the air that are constantly searching for programming on timely topics.  These wives need to go on the airwaves and talk openly just as Alicia Duerson has been doing.

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

“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.”

That much is true. Recently this reporter got an e-mail from a wife that read in part “My husband played in the mid 70’s to 80,” said the wife whose name will not be revealed. “We just saw results of a neck MRI yesterday. — Not good, but helps explain severe headaches. He remembers the game when the injury took place and he could not move his legs and arms the next day. The teams reassuring remark to him was to get better because you have to play the next week!  Five years ago he was diagnosed with brain damage. Trying to get NFL to agree there are physical, long-term injuries in past NFL players is nearly impossible. They just keep appointing another committee to look into matter.”

Alicia Duerson told the NBC TV affiliate in Chicago that during her husband’s career there were “multiple times she had to drive her husband home after games because he was dizzy, nauseous, or just not feeling quite right.  “It happened in New York (playing for the Giants) and Chicago (Bears) as well.”

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

“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.

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.

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 whether Duerson suffered from CTE.

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.  Yet that has not happened to this point according to a number of former players.

It seems in many ways that nothing much has changed for players between 1982 and now.

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, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at evanjweiner@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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