Requiem For A Heavyweight

Of all of The Dilemma’s ridiculous criticisms of Chicago and naive idealization of a city he’s never (and will never) live within 50 miles of, one of the more defensible is his fatigue in hearing about the 1985 Bears. They were the most entertaining NFL team/best NFL defense ever, but they also ruined Chicago for all other football teams. And the 25th anniversary has brought on an orgy of nostalgia (although it still lags far behind the subpar “Broadway Joe” and his overrated guarantee).

The ’85 Bears had many loud personalities, but they also had their share of workmanlike, intelligent leaders – Gary Fencik, Mike Singletary, etc. One player in the running for smartest on the team was Dave Duerson, who once was named NFL Man of the Year. After football, he was a successful businessman, a member of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees, and a NFLPA representative on the NFL’s disability claim panel.

As all of Chicago knows, Duerson killed himself last Thursday . Before shooting himself in the chest, he texted family members asking that his brain be donated to research for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, from which he obviously believed he was suffering. Duerson had also recently gone through family problems (he was charged with pushing his wife in 2005; they filed for divorce two years later) and business defeats (he sold most of his company’s assets at auction in 2006; he filed for personal bankruptcy last year). However, CTE is linked to depression, impaired impulse control and cognitive decline… it’s more than possible that Duerson’s personal problems were related to the disease.

Duerson’s tragic (and yet also somewhat brave and heroic) demise has placed an even brighter spotlight on the mental jeopardy football players place themselves in. About 20 deceased NFL players (several of whom also committed suicide) have been found with CTE since 2006, when the disease was thought to be only associated with boxers. It is only the most dramatic mental decline found in aging football players, whose repeated hits to the head and concussions leave many in dire straits in later years.

Which leaves football fans (of which there are more in the U.S. than any other sport) increasingly in the position that boxing fans found themselves in a generation ago. LIttle by little, the brain damage aging boxers experienced became more and more apparent, and The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, became a poster child for the problem. Suddenly, watching a guy get beaten into submission became less fun and defensible.

This is a dilemma that the NFL may find nearly impossible to address. If more tragedies occur, including to a player as famous as Ali, people will begin turning away from the sport. However, if the NFL continues to legislate away the violence that makes the sport so compelling, people will begin turning away from the sport. And football fans will increasingly have to think about where the line is between consequences and entertainment.

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