It wasn’t until today that I got to hear his story.
I had heard about an NFL player who had shot and killed himself and donated his brain to research. He knew something was drastically wrong. It’s not a short article but it’s here if you want it.
Basically, Duerson had a celebrated 11 year career, winning multiple titles, as well as NFL ‘Man of the Year’ in ’87 and ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ in ’88 to acknowledge his off-field character and contributions. This was more than a simple athlete. (I know, I know, ‘He was also such a good man off the field’ is such a cliché, but surely we can let the awards have some credibility here?) His family also estimates that he received one serious concussion each year, and they were only the ones that were diagnosed.
To put it into perspective as to how hard these guys hit, researchers have likened a hit they receive in practice to be the equivalent of a minor car accident. In practice…
He suffered ongoing brain-related issues post-career. His temperament changed, his memory dropped off, his decision making deteriorated rapidly. He suffered severe headaches. All these factors combined to change who he was. His businesses went under, as did his marriage.
He wrote a note giving his brain to the NFL’s ‘brain bank’ and shot himself dead. In the heart.
Do you know what ‘tau’ is?
Tau is ‘abnormal protein that forms in the brain as a result of a trauma or injury often caused by a blow to the head.’ They clog up nerve cells and kill other ones too. Dr McKee, a leading neuropathologist, was responsible for the study on Duerson’s brain. He had a lot of tau. ‘To show this degree of degenerative disease at that young age is quite extraordinary.’ Two other things McKee said struck me – ‘It’s too small for an adult male’s brain’ and ‘This is a brain at the end-stage of disease’.
The first comment simply jarred me, but Duerson knew about the second comment before anyone else. The sad thing is that one in five people who have been diagnosed with CTE, Duerson’s disease, have killed themselves.
In Australia, AFL players are pushing for a greater share of total revenue – somewhere between 23 and 27%. The AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou, has labelled them ‘lazy’ in asking for a set percentage. As a comparison, the NBA players take 55%. Part of the AFL players payment push is about setting up retirement schemes for those who have been in the game a certain period of time. Duerson’s story has only strengthened the appreciation in my mind of the sacrifice that these players give.
I cannot begrudge AFL players an increased share of the tv rights pie (over $1 billion), as much as I hope that it doesn’t open up player movement to mirror that in the US, where player loyalty is the exception, rather than the rule. To a degree, it appears that football players’ post-career working and earning capacity (and remember, the average tenure for an AFL player is less than 5 years) is less than that of a contemporary who has not spent a great part of their young life crashing themselves around a park once a week.
The AFL has been a world leader in protection of the head; just see, ‘Selwood, Joel, free kicks for’ statistics, and have strict rules about protection within and after games for players who have suffered a concussion. It will be years, possibly decades, before statistics will arise regarding Australian sportsmen and the onset of various brain diseases. But they will come.
I have never been a fan of football players off the field. I’m lucky; there’s enough good men in my life to serve as role models without having to worry about what these young, well-paid professional athletes, Melbourne’s real celebrities, are up to off the field. But even though I am trying to take some time away from my fascination with sport, my respect for them has never been in doubt. They pay an enormous price in order to bring us so much enjoyment. Their skills and abilities combined with incredible courage and perseverance creates very special people. On the field.
It’s when they’re off it that these characteristics need to be rewarded, both now, and in the future.