[originally published 8/19/11 at http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/Football_Media_Courts_Still_Not_Tackling_Lesson_of_Dave_Duerson_Suicide_9447.html]
by Irvin Muchnick
Six months after Dave Duerson put a bullet through his own chest, the annual national brain trauma toll mounts again, from the National Football League all the way down to the peewees. Meanwhile, the mentally flabby sports media continue putting out the same sugar-coated message: that we should become more “aware” about concussions, and that pro football players should emulate Duerson by donating their brains for research – as if Duerson, who spent his late life denying others’ claims of concussion syndrome, personally invented chronic traumatic encephelopathy.
Here’s a better idea. Next month, in federal court in Maryland, there will be a pretrial hearing in a case against the NFL retirement plan by Andrew Stewart, who played linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and two other teams from 1989 to 1993, and whose application for increased disability benefits had been rejected. Stewart’s lawyer wants the court to examine the work of the plan’s board of trustees – which included Duerson. [NOTE: The original published version of this article incorrectly identified Duerson as a trustee of NFL Player Care.]
(Alex Marvez of FoxSports.com, who is doing as good a job as any mainstream journalist on the concussion story’s off-the-field aspects, broke the Stewart lawsuit development at http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/andrew-stewart-dave-duerson-nfl-retirement-plan-faces-legal-challenge-081511.)
Last month Judge William D. Quarles Jr. denied Stewart’s motion for summary judgment against the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Retirement Plan. But that motion was filed in March, two months before the announcement that Duerson’s autopsy showed he had CTE, the now-infamous football-triggered brain disorder.
If there is any justice, the Duerson suicide will be a game-changer in the cases of Stewart and others. But that won’t happen until the football media roust themselves from their Duerson fairy tale and tell the real back story of his role in the sordid history of sports concussions.
Let me emphasize that though it is tempting to churn the internal politics of the NFLPA, that is not where the public’s interest lies. Marvez reports allegations that Duerson might have soft-pedaled his advocacy on the disability board in part because he harbored ambitions to succeed the late Gene Upshaw as executive director of the NFLPA (the job wound up going to DeMaurice Smith). I’m not sure of the veracity of each and every one of those charges. But I’ve had plenty of experience with bad, vision-free, power-brokering unions, and all the evidence suggests that the NFLPA is another example of them.
Still, the fundamental case for reopening the files of retired players with rejected disability claims during Duerson’s tenure need not brood over conflicts of interest, breaches of fiduciary duty, and other legal arcana. Duerson was going crazy from CTE and he was publicly tamping down the conversation about occupation-related concussion syndrome. That simple set of facts on the ground should be enough in the court of public opinion.
Why does this all matter? Because the NFL sits atop a $9-billion-a-year marketing empire, which is spreading brain disease to American boys and men. And the league’s whole strategy is to shift responsibility and public health costs.
Next week Chris Nowinski, of Boston’s Sports Legacy Institute and the Center for the Study of CTE, is participating in a symposium by a group called the Chicago Concussion Coalition, which will announce the “first-in-the-nation comprehensive concussion program.” Well, great, but pardon me while I wait to hear details of the full curriculum of this program. We have 120,000 amateur football spinal-cord injuries a year, according to a report last week by CBS, as well as an unmeasured and largely unmeasurable mental health deficit from youth football concussions and systematic subconcussive blows.
The Nowinski group’s literature says the Access Community Health Network, which is described as “the largest federally funded provider of community health care,” will announce that it is providing “primary care for all Chicago public schools student athletes who are identified as potential concussion candidates as determined within a series of clinics.”
My own opinion is that our tax dollars should be going to things like education, prenatal care, and abortion counseling – not to subsidies of the NFL circus. Unless my figures are outdated, Commissioner Roger Goodell’s beneficent spreader of good cheer has donated a grand total of $20 million to mostly skewed brain trauma research, and it is letting its partner, the Riddell helmet company, twist in the wind while the feds pursue their unambitious probe of overhyped claims for helmet safety.
What football fans and critics alike need is a handle on the costs and accountability for our current crisis. The truth about Dave Duerson is a good place to start.
Beyond Chron contributor Irvin Muchnick, author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, blogs at https://concussioninc.net and is @irvmuch on Twitter.