The NFL Must Protect its Players

We’ve had a lot of discussion over the last couple of days in The Fast Lane about Ndamukong Suh’s hit on Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton that cost Suh $20,000. D’Marco Farr felt the NFL’s fine was out of line, that the hit, especially on a rookie quarterback, didn’t warrant a fine of that magnitude.

I argued that the league wants to increase player safety not only because of the specter of a player being laid out on the field before 66,000 fans and a national TV audience, but also because of the threat of future lawsuits from players and the families of players who are disabled or harmed in the line of NFL duty.

Lo and behold, the lawsuit the NFL feared came down the pike on Thursday. And it wasn’t from the family of John Mackey, the former Colts Hall of Fame tight end who passed away last month, or the family of former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February apparently because of brain injuries suffered during his NFL career. Duerson went so far as to tell his family that when he died he wanted his brain donated to science so that doctors could study the effects of brain injuries suffered during his career, and then shot himself in the heart when he took his own life.

No, the suit was filed by seven players led by the punky QB, Jim McMahon, Duerson’s teammate who led Chicago to a title in Super Bowl XX. McMahon has said he played through five concussions but now frequently walks around “in a daze” and forgets why he entered a room. McMahon was the poster child for rugged play, for having no regard for his personal safety. Now, he says the NFL was negligent during his career and engaged in intentional misconduct in its response to the headaches, dizziness and dementia that former players have reported.

McMahon has been joined in the suit by former Rams safety/wide receiver Mike Furrey, Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, Ray Easterling, 61, a defensive back for the Falcons in the 1970s; Wayne Radloff, 50, an offensive lineman for the Falcons and 49ers in the late 1980s, Gerry Feehery, 51, a former Eagles center who played in the league from 1985 to 1989; and Steve Kiner, 64, a linebacker with the Cowboys and others from 1970 to 1978.

The NFL has said that they will vigorously fight the suit, and we know the league has good lawyers. But in the last couple of years, the league has taken dramatic steps to curb head injuries in the sport. Another group of players claims that the NFL has known about the effects of concussions for years, and hid that knowledge from those players. So the league is going to have battles on a couple of fronts against numerous players. And they’re going to have to convince juries that they didn’t know about the effects of concussions until recently.

More lawsuits are without a doubt coming. Conrad Dobler has had his leg threatened because of playing and practicing on turf. Dobler’s teammate Dan Dierdorf has to walk with a cane because of the toll turf took on his legs. People like Mike Ditka and Curt Marsh, an Oakland Raider from 1981-87, had a leg amputation and more than 30 surgeries.

Mackey died with dementia. Former Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide in a situation similar to Duerson. Studies at Boston University have found that 14 of 15 brains of deceased NFL players show signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a dementia-like brain disease afflicting athletes exposed to repeated brain trauma.

If they didn’t know it before, the NFL knows now that blows to the head are causing catastrophic damage to its players. For those of us that grew up watching and appreciating the violence of the old NFL, it’s hard to imagine that the league isn’t being ruined by fines and penalties that are turning football into a “soft” sport.

But what’s better? A soft sport that protects the heads of its players at all costs, or a rugged, violent game that literally ruins the lives of the men that play? Whether the NFL cares about its players or not, we know it cares about the almighty dollar. And to protect the money in the future, the league must protect the heads of its players today.