Dave Duerson was one of the good guys. The NFL celebrated the former Chicago Bears safety for his play on the field with Pro Bowl appearances and Super Bowl rings, and honored his sense of community off the field with the NFL Man of the Year Award. After retirement, Duerson continued to serve his peers as a member of the union’s disability panel, detailing individual cases of debilitated former players. In early 2011, however, it became clear that Duerson himself had been debilitated when the athlete committed suicide with a bullet to his chest.
Last week, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down player suspensions in “Bountygate,” another well-respected football star, Junior Seau, also killed himself. The two suicides are similar, with fatal wounds intended to preserve their football-battered brains for posthumous study. Evidence is accumulating that links concussions suffered playing the game they loved — and the sport I most enjoy watching with my kids — with declining mental health after the physical punishment has ceased.
More than any other revelation about the sport, the death of Duerson is forcing me to reflect on why I continue to watch NFL football. Giving it up would mean not just abandoning my 27-year-old fantasy football team and about three hours of potential euphoria each week, but also losing my connection to afternoons spent with my father trying to point the antenna to Milwaukee to watch blacked-out Bears games on TV. Now a father of three, I am challenged to reconcile this dark side of the game with the Sunday afternoon rituals in the fall where I encourage my kids to help me cheer for big hits.
Inspiration can be found in how other fathers handled their own disconnect between sports and parenting. In late 2007, author Jim Gullo faced a similar dilemma, albeit with a different sport and different scandal.
“We Would Cream Everybody”
Shortly after the Mitchell Report was released in December 2007, Gullo noticed that his then 7-year-old son, Joe, was arranging his growing baseball card collection in a disturbing way. Having listened to enough dinnertime conversation to understand the impact of widespread steroid abuse detailed in the report — 89 MLB players were named as users of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) — Joe scrutinized career stats on the back of player cards and made a pile for cheaters.
Troubled by the way baseball’s steroid abuse invaded his home, the elder Gullo began a quest to get answers from the sport he loved: Why would players seek help from banned drugs, and why was the profession so ready to ignore it? Gullo, an Arizona-educated journalist who previously worked for New York Magazine, wrote an article about the impact of steroids on the Seattle Mariner organization. Not satisfied with the response from MLB, he brought his son along on his journey, now chronicled in Gullo’s latest book, Trading Manny.
The title character is Manny Ramirez, a World Series MVP who in 2004 helped end the Curse of the Bambino by bringing the Boston Red Sox their first championship in 86 years. Ramirez was a dangerous hitter, winning the Sliver Slugger nine times, including eight straight seasons (1999-2006). A poster of the All-Star outfielder hung above Joe’s bed, and Ramirez was the recurring focus of the family trade speculation for the home team Mariners (“We would cream everybody,” Joe predicted).
That changed in 2009 when Ramirez, traded the previous season to the Los Angeles Dodgers, was suspended for 50 games as part of the league’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. That first strike turned Ramirez into a journeyman, playing for two more teams before Strike Two made him one of just three players to be hit with a 100-game suspension. He retired from Tampa Bay in 2011 instead of serving more time. Now with the Oakland A’s as a minor-leaguer, Ramirez is enduring a reduced 50-game suspension to start the 2012 season in an attempt to jump-start his career.
The Gullos effectively gave up on baseball in early summer 2009, about a month after the first Ramirez suspension was announced and before lawyers leaked a report that listed 103 major-league players — including Manny — who failed their drug tests in 2003. Their disinterest lasted about a year, until a pilgrimage to the hometown of a former star, the draw of spring training, and a growing relationship with minor-leaguer Dirk Hayhurst helped restore interest in the game.
One key moment came when Hayhurst gave voice to an answer Gullo had hoped his son would hear:
I wouldn’t take steroids because it’s cheating. Baseball is just a game and just a job. Anyone who tries to tell you that this is a magical experience is lying. Baseball is an entertainment experience. You have to wonder why you’d do something to yourself just to make a bunch of money and get paid. At the end of the day, there are more important things than what you did in a baseball game.
Hayhurst, whose quest to make the majors resulted in a writing career, was the most successful of several attempts by Gullo to get a direct response from baseball.
Although the game is recovering, the Steroid Era is trapped in baseball history. It cannot be Skazinskied, a term Joe learned at baseball camp where an entire career is expunged from the record books. When he shares his knowledge of baseball with kids in the neighborhood, Joe inevitably qualifies relevant statistics by including steroids in the conversation. He continues to question aberrant performances he sees. On Philip Humber’s recent perfect game, Joe admits: “If he tested positive, I wouldn’t be that surprised.”
Ramirez has been dethroned. Joe’s favorite player is Prince Fielder, the Detroit Tiger first baseman who may come the closest to feats of the Steroid Era sluggers. “For Joe, the juice era set the standard pretty high,” laments Jim. “A guy who doesn’t hit 55 home runs these days didn’t have a good year.”
“It’s always cool to watch somebody hit a homerun,” says Joe.
No Ton of Bricks
Steroids threatened Gullo’s ability to endorse the sport to his son in a way other scandals had not. Past drug problems seemed isolated (e.g., Darryl Strawberry or Steve Howe). Steroid abuse was everywhere at once.
“The Mitchell Report was shocking in its pervasiveness,” recalls Gullo, “that so many players were named and they represented such a cross-section of the game. If we had found out that 45% were testing positive for cocaine in the 1980s, that would have been a shocker. They were isolated instances.”
Even the “greenies” (amphetamines) of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four revelations in 1970 were different. “Nobody hit 70 home runs on greenies,” claims Gullo. “Darryl Strawberry didn’t hit .385 and win a triple crown because he was a cocaine user. The steroids took away the level playing field. They made a serious impact on the stats, which is really the foundation of the game. We can no longer compare Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire to Jimmie Foxx.”
The most problematic aspect of baseball’s response to steroids is the perceived absence of treatment. “When Strawberry had a cocaine issue, he was suspended and treated. People talked about it that he had a problem,” remembers Gullo. “Nobody has done that with the steroids guys. A-Rod was not put into a counseling program.”
“This all combines to make the steroid era a lot more sinister than it is given credit for,” says Gullo.
What turns a mistake into a scandal is an organization’s inability to respond. An NFL investigation revealed the New Orleans Saints operated a bounty system to reward players for hard hits and injuring opposing players. Then Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams got an indefinite suspension for his part in the scandal, which included giving speeches about who to hurt and where to hurt them and urging his team to stay silent about bounties. Commissioner Goodell sent a strong message by suspending coaches and players alike, and while his decisions drew fire — and did not address how widespread the practice may be — the actions taken by the Saints have been widely denounced.
“Seeing football’s response to this Saints scandal is telling,” says Jim Gullo. “They came down like a ton of bricks to a perceived problem. We haven’t seen that kind of response from baseball [about steroids] at any level.”
The position of commissioner was created to protect the integrity of sports. In 1921, Kenesaw Mountain Landis became the first commissioner of baseball specifically to deal with the Black Sox scandal, in which players on the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. Landis banned everyone involved, including those who knew of the payoffs but did not speak up (e.g., Buck Weaver). Goodell’s ruling is not as heavy-handed as that of Landis, but it is clearly more than a warning shot over the bow of the NFL.
The Mitchell Report, however, arrived only with a promise of further investigation. “Discipline of players and others identified in this report will be determined on a case-by-case basis,” said MLB owner-turned-commissioner Bud Selig. In the league’s eyes, according to Gullo, only two cases (Jose Guillen and Jay Gibbons) warranted sanctions: a 15-day suspension.
In Trading Manny, Gullo likened Selig to a shop teacher that looks the other way in response to student transgressions. “A different person in charge with a different mandate from the owners would have handled it in a different way,” speculates Gullo, citing how Bart Giamatti handled Pete Rose’s gambling. “Baseball has not dealt with its scandals as punitively as football just did.”
Cheating won’t be stopped with better drug testing, argues Gullo. “It’s the culture of the game, a culture that all of us embrace, from the fans to the commissioners office. It still feels like that culture is, ‘Don’t get caught.’ I don’t think my book would have happened if they had done more.”
“It Scares Me as a Dad”
The rituals inherited by modern sport are not limited to tailgating, fireworks after home runs, and marking scorecards in ink. They also include the closed fraternities of the locker room and hazing of new members of that club. Technology, medicine and economics evolve the context of professional sports, begging the fraternity to change in kind. While strong traditions have the power to connect generations through shared experiences, the other edge is a reluctance to give up what is familiar for what may be right.
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels exemplified this old school mindset by admitting to throwing at rookie outfielder Bryce Harper on purpose. The honesty drew a quick five-game suspension from the league, but the intentional violence — which likely also included the retaliatory third-inning pitch thrown by Jordan Zimmerman that hit Hamel at the plate — remains in the fabric of the sport. For an implicitly violent sport like football, that line is blurred.
Whereas steroids damaged the integrity of baseball stats, and did physical damage to the individuals who took them, the game of baseball can easily be played without PED. Football, on the other hand, becomes a different game if it turns out the only way to prevent concussions is to stop tackling. It isn’t enough to have a commissioner say emphatically not to intentionally injure other players. The NFL may need to do a significantly better job incorporating evolving brain science into their rules, equipment, and support after players leave the game.
Tony Dorsett is one of three Hall of Famers and over 300 former NFL players who are suing the league and helmet manufacturer Riddell for damages due to in-game concussions. Dave Duerson’s family has their own lawsuit to force these institutions to take responsibility for their role in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive degenerative brain disease that leads to memory loss, aggression, depression, and dementia. To their credit, the NFL under Goodell is taking concussions more seriously, but the legal and economic implications are significant barriers to being more proactive about change.
Suicides of players like Duerson and Seau haven’t deterred some fathers from encouraging their sons to play the game. Others — like former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner — are more cautious.
Informed by his own experiences, Warner is taking a conservative approach with his own sons, one of which has already suffered a concussion playing football. In a statement that drew backlash from his peers, Warner told Dan Patrick that he would prefer his kids do not play football:
It scares me as a dad. I just wonder — I wonder what the league’s going to be like. I love that the commissioner is doing a lot of things to try to clean up the game from that standpoint and improve player safety, which helps, in my mind, a lot. But it’s a scary thing for me.
When a potential Hall-of-Fame quarterback hesitates to let his sons play his game, and when 8-year-old boys can spot unusual stats trends from the backs of baseball cards, professional sports need to endorse new traditions.
Talk to Your Kids
For sports geeks trying to infuse their geeklets with a preference for Sunday afternoon armchair quarterbacking while wrestling with dark side of sports, the only absolute is conversation. Here are four things to bring up with your kids while sitting on the couch or sideline watching a game together.
1) Expect help from your team
Seau’s suicide prompted new Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall to turn the conversation from inevitable brain damage to leveraging community to provide better supports for mental health. “In sports,” he wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial, “those who show they are hurt or have mental weakness or pain are told: ‘You’re not tough. You’re not a man. That’s not how the players before you did it.’”
When participating in sports, your child’s team includes more than the other kids who share the field, or the coach who guides the development of their skills. It includes family, non-sports friends, relatives, mentors, and domain experts. Speculate about the input A-Rod might have received from his own team in making his decision to take steroids, and where else he might have looked for better support. Make sure your child understands that a strong and diverse network is more resilient and usually more intelligent, but that it only brings dividends if they use it.
2) Good doesn’t excuse the bad
The criticism to Warner’s comments about his sons playing football might be summed up as, “You should be grateful about what football has given you.” It is not impossible for one to be both grateful and concerned. Acknowledge the many charities and causes that professional athletes are put in the position to endorse, and then ask whether those efforts could be directed toward addressing the warts of the sport.
3) Look harder for role models
The criteria for heroism shouldn’t be eclipsing the 50-homer mark in a single season. Sometimes, it is as simple as giving an honest answer, like Dirk Hayhurst did for Joe Gullo. The minor leagues are filled with stand-up and accessible players. Go to the smaller ballparks and find some.
Better yet, look for peers at the local level, someone with whom your kids can open a real dialogue. For as much athletic success Mesa Prep freshman Paige Sultzbach is bound to have over the next few years, she is probably looking for support from her network after the school’s opponent forfeited a championship game because the second baseman is a girl. It’s possible that those providing inspiration are also going to need some back.
4) Expect changes
When August rolls around, I plan to break out a new Peyton Manning Broncos jersey (after my Chicago Bears beat him, of course) and share his comeback story with my kids. I’ll enlist their help if GeekDad sports creates a fantasy football league, and I’ll scrimp for enough funds to take them to a live game in the fall. I will do so, however, with an eye on Tony Dorsett and the Duersons, and an expectation that the NFL will address their valid concerns.
If not, I’m sure my kids will help me point our antenna in another direction.