[originally published May 9 at http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/Government_s_Sports_Priorities_Value_Business_Over_Public_Health_9163.html]
by Irvin Muchnick
Some day the next Edward Gibbon will come along to chronicle the obsessive triviality of the succession of boy-kings we’ve been choosing to manage the late period of the American empire. In his own half-term-plus, President Obama has regularly taken time out to issue March Madness brackets. Meanwhile, he has delivered a single Oval Office speech, late and unspecific, on why he opened a third front of foreign wars.
Now, amidst mounting evidence that our out-of-control sports industries are producing, literally, a generation of bird brains, the Justice Department Antitrust Division has positioned its teeth where they can really bite: on how college football’s Bowl Championship Series might be illegally hoarding glory and moolah on behalf of just a few of the most powerful athletic conferences.
Fittingly, news of the BCS probe leaked the same week in which researchers in Boston released the expected finding on the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that had deadened portions of the brain of former National Football League star Dave Duerson, who committed suicide three months ago.
If Obama and his advisers could be persuaded to redirect their focus from the real and present danger of a mythical football championship, they might want to ponder how the fewer than one percent of exploited college players who “graduate” to the NFL confront a health and disability system that likely wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in any other $9-billion-a-year industry.
The most explosive element of the confirmation that Duerson had CTE was the fact that he was an NFL Players Association representative on the joint management-player committee that rules on retired players’ disability claims. In that capacity, Duerson had parroted the owners’ line that there was no proof of the link between football and brain injuries – even as what we now know was his own case of CTE clouded his judgment. Duerson’s once-formidable food distribution business went into receivership, and he went bankrupt and his marriage collapsed. His loss of impulse control manifested itself in an expletive-laden diatribe against NFL legends Sam Huff and Bernie Parrish during a break at a 2007 Senate Commerce Committee hearing.
I first reported this last anecdote immediately after Duerson’s suicide, and advocated that 11 rejected claims of retired players’ families for dementia-related medical expenses, plus an untold number of other mental-illness claims rejected on his watch, be reopened in light of the information that Duerson himself had diminished mental capacity and therefore inadequately represented his fellow athletes.
Last week, following the announcement of the CTE finding, coverage in The New York Times raised the same point. John Hogan, an attorney representing many ex-NFLers fighting legal battles over rejected claims, told The Times that he was considering asking the Labor Department to conduct an audit of the cases on which the NFL Player Care panel ruled during Duerson’s tenure.
The Duerson factor is only one piece of what could should be a wide-ranging investigation, either by the Labor Department or by Senator Tom Udall, who is spurring examinations of football helmet marketing. The White House could help by sending as enthusiastic a signal on the concussion issue as it did to Justice on the BCS. The NFL Player Retirement Plan, named for the late commissioners Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle, is governed by ERISA – the Employment Retirement Income Security Act. There are allegations that the plan is underfunded, routinely ignores ERISA regulations for adjudicating claims, and is riddled with conflicts of interest and “doctor shopping” practices.
Curators of Duerson’s legacy currently are peddling the narrative that he is a hero of concussion reform. Nonsense: though his suicide called attention to the cause and cannot be discounted, his was the 15th deceased pro football player’s brain to be studied for CTE – and the 14th to turn up positive. Sportswriters and Duerson’s other friends need to put down their hankies and follow the real and harder-hitting implications of their logic.
Dave Duerson – who played college football at Notre Dame and later served as a university trustee, before being forced to resign after an arrest for battering his wife – isn’t around to tell us what he thinks of Obama’s BCS crusade. But I know what I think: it is a distraction from the concussion crisis, the No. 1 off-the-field issue in sports today.