by Irvin Muchnick
The suicide of former National Football League star and fallen business titan Dave Duerson has ricocheted through the media as a wake-up call on the American sports concussion crisis.
But one of Duerson’s chief adversaries over the years – retired Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Brent Boyd, himself a concussion victim and head of an advocacy group for disabled ex-players – has a different perspective.
In a lengthy telephone interview on Wednesday night, Boyd portrayed Duerson as a management lackey – full of bluster about the player disability claims he helped adjudicate on an NFL committee, generally hostile to players’ interests, and out of control at a 2007 Congressional hearing that explored these issues.
Boyd began our conversation by extending sympathy to Duerson’s family. “No matter what my differences were with Dave, this is a terrible tragedy, and family comes first. My heart goes out to his loved ones,” Boyd said.
But Boyd held little back in his criticism of Duerson’s post-career NFL work. Specifically, Boyd added much detail to a New York Times story this week, which reported:
Duerson … joined the six-man volunteer panel that considered retired players’ claims under the N.F.L.’s disability plan, in addition to the 88 Plan, a fund that has assisted more than 150 families caring for retired players with dementia since its inception in 2007. Duerson read applications, testimonies and detailed doctors’ reports for hundreds of players with multiple injuries, including those to the brain that in some cases left players requiring full-time care. He had to vote on whether these people received financial assistance.
In 2007, two Congressional committees held hearings into whether the disability board was unfairly denying benefits. Duerson testified before the Senate Commerce Committee alongside Brent Boyd, a former Minnesota Vikings lineman whose depression and cognitive impairment had been ruled unrelated to his playing career, therefore warranting significantly lower benefits. It is unknown how Duerson voted on Boyd’s case. He did get into a testy exchange when Boyd, then 50, asserted that his condition — and that of other players with dementia — was caused by football.
Boyd’s NFL disability claims date all the way back to 2000; his litigation of the league’s denials of his claims is now at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In future posts, I will be reporting on that aspect of the story in more detail.
With respect to Duerson’s role, Boyd said, “The Times said it is not known how Duerson voted on the committee in my case, but the answer is pretty obvious. At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing and at the NFL committee meetings, he repeatedly denied the evidence of my medical condition and accused me of being a faker who was trying to grab benefits to which he wasn’t entitled.”
And that wasn’t all. At the Congressional hearing room during an intermission, according to Boyd, Duerson initiated a heated verbal confrontation with older retired players Sam Huff and Bernie Parrish. Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, and Parrish, an accomplished defensive back with the Cleveland Browns, were pioneers in the development of the NFL Players Association in the 1960s. Both became outspoken critics of the union under the leadership of its long-time president, Gene Upshaw, who died in 2008.
Boyd: “Duerson was spewing profanities at Huff and Parrish. He said, ‘What the fuck do you know about the players union?’ He was acting like he wanted to fight them physically. That wasn’t too smart with respect to Huff especially. He looks like he could still play.”
Boyd said Duerson landed a spot on the NFL disability committee after his company Duerson Foods – at one point a major supplier to the McDonalds chain – went into receivership in 2006. Duerson was appointed by Upshaw. (The committee consists of three owner representatives and three named by the union.)
Duerson “liked to talk and talk about what an expert he was on ERISA [the Employment Retirement Income Securities Act, which governs employee benefit plans],” Boyd said. “But he was constantly misquoting and misrepresenting the law. He didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Boyd himself, a Southern California native, now lives and struggles with his health and finances in Reno, Nevada. He played for the Vikings from 1980 to 1986. (The earlier statement on this blog that he came out of Cal-Berkeley was incorrect; he played college ball at UCLA.)
In his Congressional testimony and elsewhere, Boyd has spoken movingly about his bouts with headaches, depression, and chronic fatigue. On several occasions he has been homeless. Like Duerson, Boyd fears that he will be determined after his death to have had the degenerative brain disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Boyd founded the first ex-players’ advocacy group, Dignity After Football (http://dignityafterfootball.org). The tasks of fundraising and website management became overwhelming. Ultimately, he abandoned efforts to register the organization as a 501(c)(3) charity.
“We aren’t well equipped to handle and distribute money,” Boyd said. “And ultimately we have come to realize that the task of educating the NFL alumni community is largely complete. The retired players out there understand what has happened to them and what their situation is. Our big job now is to get something done by mobilizing fans and league sponsors.”
Boyd also serves on the board of Chris Nowinski’s Sports Legacy Institute. Like many other players with NFL medical claims, Boyd worries that the Nowinski group’s work might be compromised by the acceptance by its research affiliate, Boston University, of a $1 million NFL grant. “When SLI honored [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell with its ‘Impact Award,’ that really ticked me off,” Boyd told me. “Money can buy anything.”
On Dave Duerson, Boyd summed up: “He spent years denying the concussion claims of other players. Then when the same symptoms started closing in on him, he killed himself. What does that tell you?”