After a close examination and a brief chat, my doctor offered his diagnosis.
“You put your head where it didn’t belong when you were a teenager.”
“What?” I mumbled.
“Inside a football helmet,” the doctor replied.
I responded in a way only a dumb jock would. “Oh,” I said.
My football career, thoroughly unremarkable as it was, had its share of injuries, including knee pain, pinched nerves in my shoulders and concussions. One collision, with a foe wearing a yellow helmet, briefly tinted my vision — yellow grass, yellow sky, yellow everything else. What followed was a thoroughly disoriented few moments.
All this has come back to me with news of a proposed $765 million settlement between the National Football League and 4,500 former players and their families.
The stakes are high for these NFL veterans and their loved ones. At least a half-dozen former NFL players have taken their own lives since 2011. A growing body of evidence suggests that repeated brain injuries may have played a role in these players’ depression and eventual suicides.
A 2009 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell (titled “Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football?”) began by citing the example of three former NFL players — one who “ended his life a recluse, sleeping on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station,” another who “killed himself ...by drinking antifreeze,” and a third who “sank into depression and pleaded with his girlfriend— ‘I need help, somebody help me’—before shooting himself in the head.”
Gladwell concluded that “their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.”
Gladwell also reported the results of a survey of retired NFL players. Instances of those who had been diagnosed with “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease” were well over the national average for men their age.
The NFL, which is a $10-billion-a-year business, was facing a public relations disaster. It needed to come to terms with the former players and avoid a drawn-out trial. (Current players aren’t covered under the proposed settlement.)
Had this matter gone to trial, it’s not hard to imagine how fans would feel watching their one-time NFL favorites hobbling up to the courthouse begging for help.
Likewise, the players, many of whom are reportedly suffering from the effects of countless collisions, couldn’t wait forever for relief. Also, it wouldn’t have been easy to prove to a court that their injuries were exclusively the result of playing in the NFL, as opposed to college or high school or other non-athletic bad habits.
“It’s far better than the alternative … a constant drip, drip, drip of the NFL looking like they’re strong-arming their former players,” David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, was quoted as saying when the settlement was first announced late last month.
There are many steps to cover. First is that a federal judge must approve the settlement. After that, it will take about 180 days for players to begin receiving money for treatment of their brain-injury-related conditions. The NFL will undoubtedly continue in its attempts to make the sport safer by better protecting players.
Of course, even sooner on the timetable is this weekend’s start of the NFL regular season, a time when many talented athletes might just be putting their heads where they don’t belong.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EditorBobDavis.