Sure, Expose NFL’s Double Move on Mike Webster Brain Trauma — But Don’t Forget the Dave Duerson Bubble Screen

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On ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada have a good contribution to the question of what the National Football League knew and when it knew it: newly uncovered documents showing that the league acknowledged mental disability from football-related brain trauma in the case of the late Hall of Famer Mike Webster — and almost certainly in select others, as well. See http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/page/OTL-Mixed-Messages/nfl-disability-board-concluded-playing-football-caused-brain-injuries-even-officials-issued-denials-years.

The phrase “smoking gun” is getting thrown around in connection with this report. But I’ve got to say that, over the last three years, I’ve sniffed so much recently discharged sulfur, charcoal, and saltpetre that my nose needs to be cauterized.

I retain great sympathy for the claims of the thousands of retired NFL players in class actions over post-career lives that were both shortened and deprived of quality, after inadequate disclosure by their employers of known risks. But to the extent the inner workings of the NFL retirement board shed light here, as revealed by the brothers Fainaru, it is only in the context of a cozy partnership between ownership and the NFL Players Association, who share board appointments 50-50.

I have been arguing ever since Dave Duerson’s February 2011 suicide — followed by the finding that he himself had chronic traumatic encephelopathy — that his own loud public statements and behavior in the final tortured years of his life betrayed his fiduciary duty to fellow players, the rejections of whose claims he rubber-stamped while on the retirement board.

As the Fainarus acknowledge, their investigation will be dissected to ambiguous advantage in litigation. Far more clear, in my view, is the need for a U.S. Labor Department audit of the NFL retirement board files on which Duerson deliberated. But in the absence of a strong bull rush, don’t expect the Obama administration to pursue one; attorney general Eric Holder is a longtime bosom buddy of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, and the president himself shows no inclination to buck populist football-friendly sentiment.

The inevitable lawyerly stalemate that is the NFL component of the public health debate is why I spend less time these days on the parlor game of hypocrisy-policing. Whether the question du jour is marquee quarterback concussions in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, or linebacker Brian Uhrlacher’s doubled-down defense of false self-reporting in order to stay on the field, the only real punch line for professional sports excesses is that the marketplace speaks, often unwisely. Forget consistency, of rhetoric or of action. Forget the mantra of role-modeling. Nothing principled or hygienic will come of it.

Our kids, however, are a different story. Or at least they’re supposed to be. More on that in the next post.

Irv Muchnick

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