The Korean is boycotting the Super Bowl this year. In fact, the Korean will never watch the NFL again, unless the league finds a way to dramatically reduce the level of brain damage that the players suffer. If this means American football no longer exists in the current form--instead evolving into something like touch football or rugby--I'm fine with it. If this means the death of football in America, I am ok with it.
Here is why.
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One of my fondest memories from law school involves 1987 Chicago Bears. Not that I watched the Chicago Bears in 1987--more accurately, the memory involves a virtual simulation of the '87 Bears.
In law school, my closest friends--let's call them JA, RT, and SW--and I wasted a lot of time together. RT had bought a hacked Xbox from eBay, which came pre-loaded with many classic NES games. One of the games was Tecmo Bowl, a video game from 1988 that primitively simulated the NFL at the time. RT and JA would play Tecmo Bowl together, while SW and I would watch the game, drink beer and crack jokes.
RT favored San Francisco 49ers, which featured a fearsome aerial attack with Joe Montana. JA would always play Chicago Bears, relying on Walter Payton's running game. But--because we were idiots--the absolute highlight of the game featured neither of the Hall of Famers. For us, the moment we always waited for was when Chicago's safety made an interception of Montana's pass. Then the cheesy, 1980s NES graphics would flash this across the top of the screen: "INTERCEPTION!!!!!" This would be followed by these following letters: "DAVE DUERSON!!!!!!!"
None of us has ever heard of Dave Duerson, who was a safety for the Chicago Bears in Tecmo Bowl. But that did not stop us from cracking jokes--mostly juvenile puns involving the last name "Duerson." The longest running joke was that each time Duerson made an interception, he would "Duer" RT's mom. The joke kept running because the virtual Dave Duerson would make plays like clockwork. Duerson in our Tecmo Bowl games would make about 10 interceptions a game, largely because of RT's overconfidence in the Niners' West Coast Offense. With SW, a masterfully funny guy, this joke expanded into the ones featuring various places and manners in which Dave Duerson would have sex with RT's mother.
For one Super Bowl, we decided that the four of us should kill 100 cans of Coors Light that day, and play more Tecmo Bowl before the game came on. With about five beers in, I foolishly declared that I would shotgun a can of beer each time Duerson made an interception. I don't remember how many cans of Coors Light I drank in what could not have been more than a 20 minute span, but they were enough to make me black out for the entire Super Bowl game, muttering: "Dave Duerson, you did this to me, you're awesome."
(More after the jump.)
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|Dave Duerson, S, Chicago Bears|
After our Tecmo Bowl days were over, I forgot all about Dave Duerson. It was several years after I graduated from law school that I came across an article on ESPN.com that mentioned his name. The article was a profile of Bears' legendary nose tackle, William "Refrigerator" Perry. After retiring from football, the "Fridge" was living a broken life marred by alcoholism, obesity and poor financial decisions. The article briefly mentioned Duerson's name--as it turns out, Dave Duerson was one of the few former teammates of Perry who worried for him, and ensured that Perry was cared for.
After reading the article, I googled Dave Duerson a bit, because until then, Duerson to me was not much more than a set of a few crude pixels named after him. I found that Duerson really was a good football player. He was a two-time All-American at Notre Dame. He won two Super Bowls--once with the 1985 Chicago Bears. Twice, he made second team All-Pro, and played in four Pro Bowls. Even better, he was one of those athletes who managed to make something out of himself after his playing career was over. Duerson was a multimillionaire; he owned a number of businesses after he retired, and was quite successful running them. And most importantly, Duerson was a decent man who took care of his teammates years after they stopped playing together. His story warmed my heart.
Just a few days later, I would hear about Duerson again. JA emailed me: "TRAGEDY". The attached link said Dave Duerson died at age 51. Cause of death was unknown. We noted the tragedy, real (Duerson was only 51) and comical (who will now make me shotgun 10 beers in 10 minutes?) We decided to have a Dave Duerson Memorial Beer Summit, time and place TBD.
A few weeks later, I read a column by Bill Simmons, in which he railed against NFL team owners. In the column, Simmons pretended that he was a heartless NFL team owner. One of the last lines of the column read:
Heck, I don't even care that one of my former employees was so destroyed mentally by [concussions] that, instead of just killing himself, he made arrangements ahead of time for his brain to be studied by [doctors], then shot himself in the heart. It was the creepiest, most haunting story in recent memory, the kind of incident that makes you sigh and say, "Wait, what are we doing to these people?" I don't care. I don't care. I don't care.
It was the first time I heard this--that a former NFL player shot himself in the heart, just so he could make sure that doctors could take a look at his brain. Curious, I googled: "NFL player suicide brain injury." The first result was this article from Wired.com:
Dave Duerson, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, tragically chose to take his own life last week.
But when the 50-year-old former NFL safety and successful entrepreneur shot himself in the chest, there was another purpose: so that his brain could be donated to Boston University researchers and studied to assess the life-long neurological effects of playing in the National Football League.
For sure, it has been an incredibly enlightening year in the NFL with regards to the present-day and long-term consequences of concussions and similar traumatic brain injuries caused on the gridiron. Duerson, cognizant of and confident that he was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a debilitating brain injury that has stricken many current and former football players, from college to the pros—texted family members only hours before taking his own life, imploring them to have his brain donated to those who can study it for evidence of the condition.
In fact, when police arrived at Duerson’s apartment, they found a hand-written note: “PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.”
My heart sank.
I am actually a big fan of toughness. In this blog, I yelled at people who wouldn't engage in rote memorization of foreign language vocabulary to "suck it up, you soft sack of shit!" My preference is the same when it comes to my sports watching habit--I love athletes who play through the pain.
As a Lakers fan, my biggest sports hero is Kobe Bryant. One of the qualities that I admire the most about Kobe is that he is an absolute warrior when it comes to playing through pain. Kobe keeps playing with three broken fingers, two of them on his shooting hand. Kobe keeps playing after getting fluid drained from his knee. I have a bad knee--a ski injury from I was young. The MCL in my left knee is arthritic, like a slowly unraveling piece of thread. I can't even finish a round of golf without downing four pills of Advil. If I ski two days in a row, I can hardly walk the next day. Kobe runs and jumps on his bad knees every day. That gives him a heroic quality.
Besides, injuries happen in sports. Heck, death can happen in sports. No aspiring pro athlete would be ignorant of the fact that bodily injury comes with the territory when one is playing sports for money. Sometimes basketball careers end tragically, like the way Shaun Livingston's promising young career was destroyed by catastrophic knee injury. But those things happen. To his credit, Livingston returned to NBA and is actually a decent backup PG. But even if he could not play basketball again, Livingston must have known that injury could happen to him. Knee injuries happen all the time in basketball, and there is no mystery as to the consequence of a severe knee injury.
Plus, Livingston was paid well for taking this risk. Even just with his rookie salary he already earned more money than most people will ever earn in their entire lives. As long as Livingston makes sound financial decisions, there is no reason why he could not live a comfortable, normal life with his wife and children.
But--can we say the same things about a former football player with a brain injury? Ever since the news of former NFL players suffering brain damage after retirement began trickling out in the last couple of years, I became increasingly unable to watch the game, because I cannot say yes to that question.
Brain injury is not like knee injury, or any other physical injury. My knee injury did not change who I am. Brain injury would have. If there is any body part that determines who you are, it is your brain. Your personality, your intelligence, your emotions come from your brain. Your speech, your vision, your balance come from your brain. Everything about you starts from the brain. And we still have no idea exactly what part of the brain controls what part of our body and our mind.
I can say in good conscience that people should be able to risk a lifetime of arthritis in exchange for playing sports. But can I say in good conscience that people should be able to lose their sense of self in exchange for playing sports? I know that tough guys like Ed Reed (who was one of my favorite guys to watch in football) say that they signed up for the risk. But I am not sure if any NFL player is aware of the full ramification of the risk that they signed up for, when nobody in the world really knows how the brain works.
The last days of Dave Duerson give a glimpse of how his brain damage might have destroyed the successful life that he constructed after he retired from football. Duerson was good at business. He graduated with honors as an Economics major. After he finished playing football, Duerson purchased an industrial farm and pushed its annual revenue from $24 million to $63.5 million in six years. But only a few months before he committed suicide, Duerson was bankrupt, with less than $20,000 in assets. It is hardly a stretch to think that chronic traumatic encephalopathy--or CTE, which causes early onset dementia, depression, and God-knows-what-else-because-we-have-no-idea-how-brain-works-exactly--interfered with Duerson's business judgment. As Miami New Times put it: "Dave Duerson was once a millionaire and a CEO. When he took his own life in the throes of dementia, his most valuable asset was a nine-year-old car."
Dave Duerson was 51 when he killed himself. Would Ed Reed be thinking about what his life will look like in 15, 20 years? Would an aspiring young NFL player be thinking about his life when he is 50? How could you possibly plan for your life in the future when you are no longer yourself, and you have no idea how you will change? Can you imagine how your life would be if you were dumber and more forgetful? How about if you were more impulsive and violent? Would you trust yourself to have a job, or run a business? Would you trust yourself around your wife and children?
As my mind was processing Duerson's death, I had a flashback of many awful head injuries I have seen while watching live football on television. I remember Jahvid Best falling on his head while scoring a touchdown. When I saw his body stiffening up, I thought he died or at least would never walk again. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzKKUJ5eRxo). I remember when Cal's Tom DeCoud clocked a UCLA player during a DeSean Jackson punt return--the UCLA player got up, took a few steps, and collapsed again like his legs suddenly turned into paper. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lo9e2Jf7R0o) (At 1:40 mark.) I remember seeing Pat White--one of my favorite college QBs ever--not falling, but dropping like a brick after getting hit in the head. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9asg-by8Yc&feature=fvst) In my life, I must have watched more than twice as many hours of basketball than football, and three times as many hours of baseball than football. But only in football I thought--more than a few times--someone just died on the field.
Can I stop watching football? Even with all these things swirling in my head, I actually had a hard time answering no, because I love football. I love the under-appreciated cerebral nature of the game. Shoot, I love the hard hits too. I love the way football puts me through the emotional highs and lows like no other sport. I love the fact that football connects me to a larger community of like-minded people. I love the fun tailgates, the time spent with my friends and fellow fans. I love the visual memories that football gave me. The view of the sun setting into the San Francisco Bay, seen from the Tightwad Hill overlooking the Memorial Stadium, will forever be one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. I couldn't quit cold turkey, so I hung on. I kept watching football through the 2011-2012 season, although less frequently and less joyfully.
Then came the last straw. On May 2, 2012, Junior Seau killed himself. Like Dave Duerson, Seau shot himself in the heart. By following the news, I belatedly learned that Ray Easterling, the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit against the NFL, also committed suicide on April 19, 2012. (Autopsy showed that both Seau and Easterling had CTE.) I also learned that the number of plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit was greater than a thousand. More than a thousand brain-damaged plaintiffs, all former NFL players. The list of players include Super Bowl MVPs, Hall of Famers, multiple Pro Bowlers. And I knew that, in my lifetime, many of my favorite NFL players will end up on the same list, as long as we cheer them on to ram their heads against each other over and over and over.
I could not take it any more. In the last season, I did not watch any NFL game, did not play fantasy football, and did not read any NFL-related sports news. I declined all invitations I received for a Super Bowl party. This Sunday, I plan to cook a nice dinner for my wife instead. The television will be off.
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