Commentary

Dave Duerson's death a warning

Updated: February 25, 2011, 3:15 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

"They're trying to turn the NFL into patty-cake!"

I'm not sure who said that, although I'm sure someone did. Particularly during those tumultuous weeks in the middle of the 2010 NFL season when the league was handing out fines for "dangerous and flagrant hits" like Halloween candy. All told, players were fined about a half-million dollars after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made it his mission to protect defenseless players by cracking down on illegal hits.

[+] EnlargeHarrison
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesPlenty of fans made light of James Harrison's fines, but the toll of the NFL's violence doesn't end when players step off the field.

The enforcement party wasn't universally popular. Many players strongly voiced their displeasure. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison -- who was fined enough ($125,000) to seed a small hedge fund -- contemplated retirement after being fined $75,000 in October for a hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Harrison wondered if he could "actually play by NFL rules and still be effective."

The next month, his Steelers teammate Troy Polamalu, the Pro Bowl safety, called for players to be involved in the decisions on fines and suspensions, a request Goodell pretty much sacked.

In between, players and fans wailed at the crackdown, bemoaning how it would transform the inherently violent game into two-hand touch.

Then Dave Duerson put a gun to his chest.

The former safety, four-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl winner (the 1985 Chicago Bears and 1990 New York Giants) and entrepreneur killed himself Thursday at his home in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. His death alone was a tragedy, but we soon learned that it was so much more.

Duerson had reportedly sent recent text messages to several relatives asking them to have his brain examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease often referred to as "punch-drunk" syndrome because it was originally more associated with boxers, whose profession was essentially a series of powerful blows -- many to the head. Now the NFL owns it.

In CTE-affected brains, cells deteriorate and die over time, causing ailments including depression, dementia, violent or irrational behavior, memory loss and even death. It'll be months before we know whether Duerson, 50, indeed suffered from CTE. His brain is already at the Boston University Medical School's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where, in partnership with the Sports Legacy Institute, brains of deceased players have been studied for years. Many have shown the kind of degeneration associated with the disease.

Too many.

That's why (and it's only one reason) the NFL's efforts to minimize -- not eliminate -- the potential damage to players should be lauded, not derided.

Today, it's just a game. A tackle. A top-10 highlight.

Tomorrow, it may be a life.

Dave Duerson
Tannen Maury/AFP/Getty ImagesDave Duerson pointed out that he was an organ donor during a public memorial service for Bears great Walter Payton in 1999.

Sadly, the initial word of Duerson's suicide was not wholly surprising. The list of NFLers who have taken their own lives for various reasons is not a short one. But add to them the former players suffering day-to-day ailments -- many in so much pain that they cannot lead normal, healthy lives -- and you have to wonder why the health and safety of players (current and former) isn't more than a seeming afterthought during the negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement.

Open the books. Close the books. Add an extra $1 billion exemption to the owners' pockets. Or subtract it altogether.

Who cares how the millionaires and the billionaires split their $8.9 billion baby -- if the baby ultimately won't be able to walk? Or worse.

The league has made it clear that it won't back off next season. "We will take all the criticism and all the backlash against those that say we are acting too aggressively in this regard," said NFL VP of football operations Ray Anderson to a radio audience last fall. "We are not going to be apologetic. We are not going to be defensive about it. We are going to protect our players."

And that's to be applauded -- yet I also question the league's sincerity when it is seeking to add two games to the 16-game season.

More games = more revenue.

More games = more hits.

More games = more …

Today it's just a game. Tomorrow it may be a life.

Duerson was said to be suffering from headaches and loss of vision. Moreover, he was enduring financial strains. It was reported this week that he had filed for bankruptcy in September, citing $14.7 million in liabilities. He reported assets of $34.6 million, but that was mostly an uncollected judgment his food company won in 2004.

We may never know what ultimately led Duerson to end his life. In time, we'll know whether he suffered from CTE, which certainly could have contributed to his death.

We do know that he reached out to people he knew seeking answers. (And hopefully those relatives will allow the rest of us to know the findings of the Brain Institute once they receive them.)

Yet in sending those texts to just a few close relatives, Duerson also reached many of us that he didn't know, and in so doing, perhaps he even quieted the debate over how hard is too hard in the NFL.

At least until the next game.

Or the next life.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com

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