Knapp: Duerson’s death should teach athletes a lesson

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Gwen Knapp The San Francisco Chronicle

May 6, 2011

How many more Dave Duersons will eventually be proven wrong in the most horrific way imaginable?

Earlier this week, medical researchers at Boston University confirmed that the former Bears safety, who committed suicide in February at age 50, had severe damage linked to repeated blows to the head. Out of 15 deceased NFL players who have donated their brains to the B.U. team, he was the 14th confirmed to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

As a member of the NFL board in charge of distributing benefits to retirees, Duerson had publicly and stubbornly insisted that the game could not be blamed for the Alzheimer’s-like symptoms that some of his former colleagues experienced. As recently as 2007, he testified at a Senate hearing in opposition to the ailing ex-players and their advocates.

Not long after that, Duerson’s family has said, headaches, memory loss, blurred vision and short temper began to trouble him. He took his own life with a gunshot to the chest, leaving behind a text-messaged plea to his ex-wife: “Be sure that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”

By the time Duerson died, the NFL had abandoned the position he took in front of Congress and begun implementing policies to limit brain damage. But none of those efforts, from the fines levied for excessively dangerous hits to the rule requiring players to be sidelined based on concussion-test results, will matter if Duerson’s previous attitude trumps his final act.

Before he became ill, Duerson subscribed to a form of denial that is an NFL staple. This long-term damage isn’t real. Even if it is, it can’t happen to me. And even if it does happen to me, I’d rather play football than worry about it now.

Alex Marvez of Fox Sports recently quoted a doctor who has treated players with concussions as saying they will deliberately underperform on their baseline brain-function tests in the preseason. They must take similar tests after a blow to the head, and the scores are compared to determine when the player can return to the field.

“They know that if they have a concussion and score badly that, ‘I’m going to be taken out. It’s going to affect my livelihood,’ ” Daniel Amen told Marvez. “I’ve had a number of players tell me they purposely do bad on the testing to start, so if they get a concussion it doesn’t affect them. … We need to educate them that this is a really dumb idea.”

Shortly after that, Peyton Manning told ESPN: “Before the season, you have to look at 20 pictures and turn the paper over and then try to draw those 20 pictures. And they do it with words, too. … Then, after a concussion, you take the same test, and if you do worse than you did on the first test, you can’t play. So I just try to do badly on the first test.”

Two days later, the Colts quarterback called his comments a failed attempt at humor.

The NFL has tried to deter the game’s cultural bias toward toughing out head injuries, encouraging teammates to look for signs of concussions in each other and report their concerns. But management sent the wrong message by proposing expansion of the regular season to 18 games.

The players, as a rule, did not buy the argument that proper tackling technique could limit damage more effectively than a shorter schedule. They were certain, based on the pain inflicted over 16 games, that a longer regular-season schedule would put too much strain on their bodies.

Yet the commissioner and owners didn’t promptly shelve the idea of 18 games. On the one hand, they told the players to be more sensitive to long-term risks, and on the other, they callously dismissed their concerns about more-immediate carnage.

Duerson represented the players union on the league’s benefits committee. Until recently, the union opposed redirecting more of the current money pool to old-timers. So on Capitol Hill, Duerson referred to his 84-year-old father with Alzheimer’s, saying he had worked for General Motors and never played a pro sport.

“The challenge, you know, in terms of where the damage comes from, is a fair question,” Duerson said that day.

His route to an answer could not have been more devastating.

(E-mail Gwen Knapp at gknapp(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

columnMust credit the San Francisco Chronicle