Maybe there’s a need for a sticker affixed to every helmet from pee-well ball to the NFL reading, “Football can be hazardous to your brain long after you stop playing.”
Can’t assume everybody already knows that. Every parent. Every grandparent. Every 10-year-old boy who stands in front of a mirror in full football pads and uniform, growling and posing and admiring the incredible hulk who is looking back, a dream figure who will never get hurt, never grow old.
It’s hypocritical of me to call for a reduction in the inherent violence of the game, not unless there is an accompanying revulsion for the roar of a sold-out stadium, or a decision to stop making a living with stories that highlight the battering-ram glory of a goal-line stand.
On a day like Monday, however, when the news breaks that some of the game’s greatest names are suffering severe neurological disorders, it makes you stop and stare at reality for a change.
Gale Sayers, a running back so spectacular that he made the Pro Football Hall of Fame after playing just 68 games for the Chicago Bears, has been diagnosed with dementia. He barely spoke during a recent seven-hour visit to his home and his family by Kansas City Star columnist Vahe Gregorian. Sayers is 73 and his wife believes the problems with memory loss and judgment began in his mid-60’s.
Also new to the public consciousness is Dwight Clark’s announcement that he has ALS, the devastatingly degenerative nerve disorder often known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Clark is the former Pro Bowl receiver who teamed with Joe Montana on “The Catch,” a landmark playoff touchdown that started San Francisco toward a string of Super Bowl titles. He is 60 and says he suspects that football is the cause for his dire diagnosis.
“I don’t know for sure,” Clark wrote on social media, and it truly is not easy making direct connections.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2016 that as many as 15,000 people have ALS in this country, men and women, and that the onset of the disease commonly is between the ages of 55 and 75.
During the long court case and accompanying negotiations that led to the NFL Concussion Settlement, however, the league itself estimated that roughly three out of 10 living retirees from the league will be eligible for compensation.
The settlement doesn’t just specify CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain condition that led players to sue the league and was the focus of the 2015 film “Concussion.” There also are payments for treatment of early to moderate dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS.
It’s a start. Where it ends is the next question.
Since the game was invented, retired football players have found it difficult to get out of bed because of bum knees and hips and backs. Everybody knew that was part of the deal, too, and it didn’t stop the game from growing in popularity and participation.
For that matter, it’s been almost five years since a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that pro football players are at a risk for Alzheimer’s and ALS that is four times greater than the general public.
What we know, what we don’t know, it’s all pretty scary, but not enough to change the game’s overall momentum, from “Friday Night Lights” to “Monday Night Football.”
What’s different, if anything, about beloved stars like Sayers and Clark is the added glare of their names in the headlines, and the 1-2 punch of reading those names in this cruel context.
In the Kansas City Star story, Sayers is reported by his wife to be physically strong and doing regular workouts with a trainer. It’s his mind that can no longer stay up.
Clark, on the other hand, writes of losing strength in his hands and his legs and his abdomen and his back. He fully understands it will get worse, much worse, but vows “to fight like hell and live every day to the fullest.”
Susan Spencer-Wendel, the Palm Beach Post court reporter who died at 47 nearly three years ago, tackled her ALS from the same cogent angle and wrote a beautiful book about it. She wasn’t a linebacker, but no pro football player ever was tougher.
I’m thinking, based on all of this, that it won’t be so cute to see grade-school boys playing tackle football this year at the park where my wife and I walk. Touch football could teach them the rules and the teamwork benefits for a bit longer, right?
Until they’re able to read and process all the information that’s out there.
Until they’re equipped to help Dad and Mom at reaching a decision on football that’s much tougher than it used to be, and at finding a youth or school coach who gets it.