A sad legacy of the 1985 Chicago Bears: Pro football & workplace safety

For Chicago sports fans and students of pro football in general, the 1985 Chicago Bears stand as one of the most legendary teams in the history of the National Football League. After posting a 15-1 regular season record, they stormed through the playoffs, finishing with a 46-10 Super Bowl annihilation of the New England Patriots.

Many Bears players were so confident of an eventual Super Bowl win that even before the regular season ended, they gathered at a recording studio to make their now famous video, “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” featuring some of the worst dancing you’ve ever seen.

Special place

As a long suffering, devoted Bears fan who grew up near Chicago, this team will always have a special place in my heart. The 1985 squad made up for all the dreary, frustrating seasons that preceded it. The roster was loaded with talented, colorful players, and they were so much fun to watch.

And in the weird way that sports fans associate favorite teams with times of their lives, the ’85 Bears came along at a good time in mine. I had just graduated from NYU’s law school and was working happily as a public interest lawyer in New York City, while enjoying life in the city on a shoestring budget. From a distance, I was treated to the unfolding of a remarkable season.

But many have paid a price

Sadly, however, we now are seeing how the game exacted a demanding price on the minds and bodies of our gridiron warriors. For example:

Dave Duerson

Earlier this year, one of the stars of the team’s defensive unit, Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson, committed suicide at the age of 50. He did so with a purpose. He knew he was deteriorating mentally, and he strongly suspected that head injuries during his playing days were the cause. He killed himself in a manner that allowed his brain to be studied.

Ed Pilkington tells the story for The Guardian in an excellent, in-depth article (link here):

But he knew that he had a problem. There were the outward signs of difficulties – the collapse of his business, the breakup of his marriage, the debts. But there were also the internal changes. The lapses in memory, the mood swings, the piercing headaches on the left side of his head, the difficulty spelling simple words, the blurred eyesight. And hanging over it all was his fear that both his material and physical decline might not be coincidental, that they might have been caused by injuries to his brain suffered playing the game he loved so much – football.

Read the full article to learn more about what is being discovered about football players and brain injuries.

Jim McMahon

Quarterback Jim McMahon was brash, cocky, and remarkable in the clutch. However, having suffered five concussions during his playing days, he now is experiencing repeated short-term memory loss. Earlier this year, he became a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, alleging that the league is responsible for exposing its players to harm from concussions.

As reported by the Associated Press (via ESPN, link here):

Seven former players have sued the NFL in Philadelphia over the league’s handling of concussion-related injuries, the first potential class-action lawsuit of its kind.

The players accuse the league of training players to hit with their heads, failing to properly treat them for concussions and trying to conceal for decades any links between football and brain injuries.

The plaintiffs include two-time Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon, who has said he played through five concussions but now frequently walks around “in a daze” and forgets why he entered a room.

Walter Payton

Walter Payton, one of the NFL’s greatest running backs and perhaps the most beloved sports figure in Chicago history, died in 1999 from a rare form of cancer. It was a stunning loss for his fans; the player known as “Sweetness” was only 45 years old.

On the field, Payton’s durability was remarkable. He started 170 consecutive games, a stunning record given the rigors of the game and the number of times he carried the football.

Thanks to a new, controversial biography of Payton — Jeff Pearlman’s Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton (2011) — we now learn that he apparently abused his body with powerful drugs so that he could play through the pain. As excerpted in Sports Illustrated (link here):

As a player he had numbed his maladies with pills and liquids, usually supplied by the Bears. Payton popped Darvon robotically during his playing days, says [his longtime agent Bud] Holmes, “I’d see him walk out of the locker room with jars of painkillers, and he’d eat them like they were a snack”, and also lathered his body with dimethyl sulfoxide, a topical analgesic commonly used to treat horses.

The physics of football

NFL players bring combinations of size and speed that make football a very dangerous and brutal game. The sheer wear and tear on their bodies can take a serious toll. We’re seeing the effects of when players’ heads repeatedly are batted around, knocked to the ground, and used as weapons.

The NFL finally is taking the risks of concussions more seriously, but there remains the long trail of players who have suffered head traumas, with the injuries sometimes compounded by inadequate treatment.

In addition, we fans must come to grips with the fact that many of our football heroes, while handsomely compensated, have paid for the privilege and glory of entertaining us with their immediate and long-term health. This game simply must be made safer, or else it’s time to consider whether it should continue.

***

Related post

Should this be our last Super Bowl?

2 responses

  1. As long as we continue to be a hypercompetitive winner-takes-all society, we will continue to allow (and I fear, enjoy) the barbarism.

  2. Concussions are nothing to sneeze at. We’re only beginning to learn the long-term damage they cause.

    Isn’t it something that men most of society holds up as idols might actually become genuine heroes of a sort for telling the world about the terrible price they paid for football fame and fortune?

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