For Dave Duerson, ‘88 Plan’ Wasn’t Enough

The Dave Duerson suicide is a chilling event through and through. One of the coldest things is its recursive irony: Duerson served on the National Football League committee that helped process disability claims of families of retired players, including the “88 Plan,” which defrays the medical bills of victims of dementia.

Even if Duerson’s golden life and career had not deteriorated to the point where he was himself one of the disabled, and even if he hadn’t plummeted into the financial bankruptcy so common among sufferers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the devastating disease for which his brain will now be tested), becoming intimately involved in the paperwork of the heartbreaking cases of his ex-colleagues must have been profoundly depressing.

The scenario reminds me of the constant stream of funerals and memorial shows for dead fellow wrestlers Chris Benoit found himself attending five or so years ago, until he himself snapped.

History– if not, in the nearer future, our courts of law – will have much to say about the NFL’s response to evidence that its product was killing its talent and, by its enormous commercial and cultural influence, spreading brain trauma through the American sports superstructure like a weed.

Dr. Bennet Omalu named the disease CTE but he didn’t invent the problem of epidemic head injury. That was for others before him to reveal – or ignore. In future posts I’ll get into all this in greater depth. Readers can decide how much such criticism adds up to garden-variety second-guessing and how much establishes clear-cut corporate extemporizing and blame-shifting about the well-being of workers, as well as about its implications for national public health.

Information on the 88 Plan itself is at http://nflplayercare.com. Earmarked for ex-players with dementia, the plan was inspired by the case of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who is now in his late sixties but has had severe cognitive problems, culminating in dementia, probably for a decade or more. The “88” refers to Mackey’s uniform number with the Baltimore Colts; in the original concept, dementia benefits were to be capped at $85,000 per claimant, but in honor of Mackey it was upped to $88,000. The program started in September 2007.

As Alan Schwarz reported in The New York Times, Dave Duerson had a “testy exchange” with former UCLA and Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Brent Boyd at a 2007 Congressional hearing. Boyd said his clinical depression was the result of cumulative football hits. Duerson disagreed.

That is a very interesting addition to the Duerson narrative in multiple respects. When the work of the NFL disability committee began, Duerson could have been a voice who, either generally speaking or in particular cases, was overly sympathetic to the league company line in his interpretation of claims; and that, in turn, could have led to guilt and exacerbated his depression as his own symptoms accelerated. Again, the instruction of the Chris Benoit experience: near the end of his life, Benoit, who had always defended the wrestling industry’s hyper-macho credo, found himself resignedly agreeing with disgruntled colleagues who unloaded with him about their unconscionable working conditions.

Brent Boyd is on the board of directors of a former players’ advocacy group called Dignity After Football; the website is http://dignityafterfootball.org. I am trying to reach Boyd for comment.

Irv Muchnick

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