Archive for February, 2011

‘Dave Duerson Knew Nothing About Concussions and Players’ Best Interests’ – My Exclusive Interview With Ex-Minnesota Viking Brent Boyd

by Irvin Muchnick

The suicide of former National Football League star and fallen business titan Dave Duerson has ricocheted through the media as a wake-up call on the American sports concussion crisis.

But one of Duerson’s chief adversaries over the years – retired Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Brent Boyd, himself a concussion victim and head of an advocacy group for disabled ex-players – has a different perspective.

In a lengthy telephone interview on Wednesday night, Boyd portrayed Duerson as a management lackey – full of bluster about the player disability claims he helped adjudicate on an NFL committee, generally hostile to players’ interests, and out of control at a 2007 Congressional hearing that explored these issues.

Boyd began our conversation by extending sympathy to Duerson’s family. “No matter what my differences were with Dave, this is a terrible tragedy, and family comes first. My heart goes out to his loved ones,” Boyd said.

But Boyd held little back in his criticism of Duerson’s post-career NFL work. Specifically, Boyd added much detail to a New York Times story this week, which reported:

Duerson …  joined the six-man volunteer panel that considered retired players’ claims under the N.F.L.’s disability plan, in addition to the 88 Plan, a fund that has assisted more than 150 families caring for retired players with dementia since its inception in 2007. Duerson read applications, testimonies and detailed doctors’ reports for hundreds of players with multiple injuries, including those to the brain that in some cases left players requiring full-time care. He had to vote on whether these people received financial assistance.

In 2007, two Congressional committees held hearings into whether the disability board was unfairly denying benefits. Duerson testified before the Senate Commerce Committee alongside Brent Boyd, a former Minnesota Vikings lineman whose depression and cognitive impairment had been ruled unrelated to his playing career, therefore warranting significantly lower benefits. It is unknown how Duerson voted on Boyd’s case. He did get into a testy exchange when Boyd, then 50, asserted that his condition — and that of other players with dementia — was caused by football.

Boyd’s NFL disability claims date all the way back to 2000; his litigation of the league’s denials of his claims is now at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In future posts, I will be reporting on that aspect of the story in more detail.

With respect to Duerson’s role, Boyd said, “The Times said it is not known how Duerson voted on the committee in my case, but the answer is pretty obvious. At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing and at the NFL committee meetings, he repeatedly denied the evidence of my medical condition and accused me of being a faker who was trying to grab benefits to which he wasn’t entitled.”

And that wasn’t all. At the Congressional hearing room during an intermission, according to Boyd, Duerson initiated a heated verbal confrontation with older retired players Sam Huff and Bernie Parrish. Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, and Parrish, an accomplished defensive back with the Cleveland Browns, were pioneers in the development of the NFL Players Association in the 1960s. Both became outspoken critics of the union under the leadership of its long-time president, Gene Upshaw, who died in 2008.

Boyd: “Duerson was spewing profanities at Huff and Parrish. He said, ‘What the fuck do you know about the players union?’ He was acting like he wanted to fight them physically. That wasn’t too smart with respect to Huff especially. He looks like he could still play.”

Boyd said Duerson landed a spot on the NFL disability committee after his company Duerson Foods – at one point a major supplier to the McDonalds chain – went into receivership in 2006. Duerson was appointed by Upshaw. (The committee consists of three owner representatives and three named by the union.)

Duerson  “liked to talk and talk about what an expert he was on ERISA [the Employment Retirement Income Securities Act, which governs employee benefit plans],” Boyd  said. “But he was constantly misquoting and misrepresenting the law. He didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Boyd himself, a Southern California native, now lives and struggles with his health and finances in Reno, Nevada. He played for the Vikings from 1980 to 1986. (The earlier statement on this blog that he came out of Cal-Berkeley was incorrect; he played college ball at UCLA.)

In his Congressional testimony and elsewhere, Boyd has spoken movingly about his bouts with headaches, depression, and chronic fatigue. On several occasions he has been homeless. Like Duerson, Boyd fears that he will be determined after his death to have had the degenerative brain disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Boyd founded the first ex-players’ advocacy group, Dignity After Football ( The tasks of fundraising and website management became overwhelming. Ultimately, he abandoned efforts to register the organization as a 501(c)(3) charity.

“We aren’t well equipped to handle and distribute money,” Boyd said. “And ultimately we have come to realize that the task of educating the NFL alumni community is largely complete. The retired players out there understand what has happened to them and what their situation is. Our big job now is to get something done by mobilizing fans and league sponsors.”

Boyd also serves on the board of Chris Nowinski’s Sports Legacy Institute. Like many other players with NFL medical claims, Boyd worries that the Nowinski group’s work might be compromised by the acceptance by its research affiliate, Boston University, of a $1 million NFL grant. “When SLI honored [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell with its ‘Impact Award,’ that really ticked me off,” Boyd told me. “Money can buy anything.”

On Dave Duerson, Boyd summed up: “He spent years denying the concussion claims of other players. Then when the same symptoms started closing in on him, he killed himself. What does that tell you?”

Tomorrow at the Wrestling Babylon blog: Analysis of Dave Duerson’s November 2010 interview, published posthumously this week at the sports site






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 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 I am trying to reach Boyd for comment.

Irv Muchnick

WWE Hall of Fame Flashback: What Shawn Michaels Did to Lance Cade

“Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels Should Speak Up on What Happened to Lance Cade,” February 14,

“Did WWE’s Lance Cade Have Brain Damage? It May Not Be Too Late to Find Out,” February 15,

WWE Hall of Fame Notes: Bob Armstrong Is Going In – That’s Why Referee Scott Armstrong, Chris Benoit’s Text-Message Friend, Is Back

Sources tell me that “Bullet Bob” Armstrong is going into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame this year. (Others named so far are Shawn Michaels and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.)

I don’t believe Armstrong, now 71, ever wrestled for WWE or its predecessor WWF; I know fans will quickly correct me if I’m wrong about that. But he had a long and distinguished career for southern promotions, and since WrestleMania is being held this year in Atlanta, his induction has a marketing hook.

An amusing offshoot is that this development triggered the return of WWE referee (and former wrestler) Scott Armstrong, Bullet Bob’s son. No one could figure out why Scott was released last year in the first place, since he got high marks for his work, but whatever. Scott is again gainfully employed by the world’s dominant pro wrestling promotion.

As readers of this blog and my book CHRIS & NANCY also know, Scott Armstrong was, along with wrestler Chavo Guerrero, a recipient of Chris Benoit’s final text messages, just before he killed himself after murdering his wife Nancy and their 7-year-old son Daniel. WWE’s explanation for why company higher-ups supposedly didn’t know about these messages for more than a day is full of inconsistencies. Guerrero’s public explanation on Fox News the next month (that the cryptic messages didn’t seem all that important at the time) directly contradicted another explanation, that he didn’t receive the messages because of transmission problems. Armstrong himself was said to have actually gone to the Houston airport on Sunday morning, June 24, 2007, in anticipation of picking up Benoit (who was supposed to be flying in from Atlanta for a pay-per-view show that night). Yet Armstrong too, according to WWE, did not see that top executives knew about Benoit’s text messages even after Benoit no-showed the Sunday night pay-per-view, necessitating script-doctoring.

Anyway … Welcome to the Hall, Bullet Bob.

As for Hall of Fame valedictorian Shawn Michaels, see:

“Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels Should Speak Up on What Happened to Lance Cade,” February 14,

“Did WWE’s WWE’s Lance Cade Have Brain Damage? It May Not Be Too Late to Find Out,” February 15,

Irv Muchnick

WWE Hall of Fame Notes: ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan, Grandfather of the ‘Wellness Policy’

World Wrestling Entertainment has announced that “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, a mostly late eighties-early nineties guy, will join Shawn Michaels in the Hall of Fame class of 2011. Bully for Duggan.

I think pro wrestling experts would agree that Duggan’s best performances were for other promotions. From an historical standpoint, his main WWE legacy was something that isn’t likely to get mentioned at the April 2 induction ceremony: it was a 1987 incident involving Duggan and Khosrow Vasiri (“The Iron Sheik”) that provided the original impetus for what passes for company drug-testing.

Duggan and the Sheik were arrested by New Jersey state troopers. Duggan, who was driving, was charged with possession of marijuana and with drinking alcohol while behind the wheel. The Sheik was charged with possession of marijuana and cocaine. Duggan got a conditional discharge, Sheik a year’s probation.

The negative publicity was said to have most embarrassed Vince McMahon (whose company was then known as the World Wrestling Federation) because Duggan was a “babyface” and the Sheik was a “heel,” and babyfaces and heels are not supposed to be seen fraternizing.

In any event, McMahon then instituted drug-testing, mostly for recreational drugs; the joke inside the company was you got suspended if you tested positive for cocaine or negative for steroids.

Following the federal conviction of ring doctor George Zahorian in 1991, WWF then started testing for steroids. In 1996, random steroid testing was eliminated as a cost-saving measure, and also because deep-pocketed rival World Championship Wrestling was gaining a competitive advantage from WWF’s more stringent testing. And also, I might add, because no one was looking  any more.

In 2006, months after the heart attack death of star Eddie Guerrero, WWE reinstituted steroid testing as part of its “wellness policy.” But it all started with Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Hey-ohhhh!

As forHall of Fame valedictorian Shawn Michaels, see:

“Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels Should Speak Up on What Happened to Lance Cade,” February 14,

“Did WWE’s Lance Cade Have Brain Damage? It May Not Be Too Late to Find Out,” February 15,

Irv Muchnick

‘Duerson Suicide Shows NFL Body Count Rising Like WWE’s — But With New Intrigue’ … today at Beyond Chron

The gruesome decades-long underground American saga that is the football concussion crisis has never gotten in our faces quite like the story of the suicide last week, at age 50, of one-time National Football League defensive player of the year Dave Duerson.

How many levels are there to the news that Duerson put a gun to himself, but not before texting family that he wanted his brain donated for research on the brain-trauma syndrome now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)? Let us, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, count them. It begins with the fact that he shot himself in the chest – perhaps with supreme confidence that by avoiding his head and leaving intact his postmortem brain tissue, it will confirm that he is around the 21st diagnosed case of CTE among former football players.

Duerson is the latest casualty of a sport that has evolved, via training technology and industrial design, into a form of gladiatorialism whose future human and economic viability is questionable. The New Yorker and The New York Times have started assessing this cultural phenomenon with their own brands of competence and Ivy League restraint. From the closeted gutter of pro wrestling, where all the same venalities play out with less pretense, I’m here to tell “the rest of the story” – such as how the same corrupt doctors who work for the NFL also shill for World Wrestling Entertainment, and how it’s all part of the same stock exchange of ethics for profits and jock-sniffing privileges.


‘Duerson Suicide Shows NFL Body Count Rising Like WWE’s — But With New Intrigue’

… My Tuesday column at Beyond Chron.

Irv’s Tweets

February 2011
« Jan   Mar »