I was living in Chicago during the Chicago Bear's Super Bowl years and while I'm not a huge sports fan, I have incredibly fond memories of that time. There was something magical about being in a bar, surrounded by other fans as your home town team wins it all. The Bears of those years were a media sensation that spread far beyond the shores of Lake Michigan. Remember the cheesy "Super Bowl Shuffle" video? The endless national commercials, the hype around bad boy quarterback Jim McMahon? For many Chicago sports fans, only the Michael Jordan championship years can come close to those memories.
But it's sad to realize that for many of those Bears players, the ensuing years have not been kind. They were a hard-playing physical team and the beating their bodies took during those games has altered the rest of their lives. While many of the players suffer from the ailments you would expect to see - ranging from arthritis to chronic pain - the biggest impact has been the result of injuries resulting from the concussion suffered during those games.
Golden boy quarterback Jim McMahon says that repeated blows to the head have brought on the early stages of dementia and he told a Chicago TV station in 2012 that if had to do it all over again, he would play baseball. He suffers from anger issues and admits that he can listen to a voice mail and then forget it entirely as soon as he hangs up his phone.
Former Bears safety Dave Duerson suffered for years from mental problems related to his frequent concussions. He battled depression and anger issues that left his family afraid to be in the same room with him. He ultimately killed himself in 2011, donating his brain to science in hopes it would help prevent future players from suffering his fate.
There seem to be at least a dozen players from that era of the Bears that are suffering from the after effects of repeated concussions and it's a similar story on every team in the National Football League. It's an issue that players have known about for decades and it's really only become a talking point for fans after the recent $765 million settlement between more than 4,000 former players and the NFL. It's a huge problem that looms large in the sport and it makes being a fan of professional football a tougher call. Is it moral to be a fan of a sport that brings some much potential pain and damage to its players?
The timing couldn't be better for the PBS documentary series "Frontline" to air its special "League Of Denial," which takes a look at the problem of concussions and efforts by the NFL to divert attention away from the issue.
Originally co-produced with sports network ESPN, that channel withdrew its name from the project earlier this summer. Media reports have suggested that the NFL brought pressure to bear on ESPN and whether or not that's true matters very little at this point. This is a brutal documentary to watch, as viewers see the costs of playing football on a professional level.
The beginning of the film focuses on former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster, whose brain is credited with being one of the first ones to show the damage concussions could cause. That story leads quickly to the NFL's consistent efforts over several decades to cover uo concerns over the issue. Doctors hired by the league dismissed any link between brain trauma and football, despite private medical evidence assembled by the league that showed just the opposite results.
"League Of Denial" also argues that some of the recent efforts to study chronic concussion injuries-like the NFL's 2009 donation to Boston University to study the issue-are more about garnering good PR than finding solutions to the problem.
Not surprisingly, the NFL declined to speak with producers or cooperate with the documentary in any way. But it's worth noting that one of the terms of the recent financial settlement with players is that the NFL did not have to release any of the medical studies or other information they have gathered about the impact concussions have on players.
It's difficult to watch "League Of Denial" and not feel a bit uneasy about being a fan of professional football. Yes, the league has worked to change the rules in hopes of making the worst types of hits less likely. But as I've read the news coverage leading up to tonight's premiere, I've been struck by how big a deal this is to players. I saw a recent interview with one leading NFL quarterback who said that every time he prepares to throw the ball, he worries about whether someone will be injured on the play. He declines to throw down the middle anymore, because he knows how easy those plays can lead to a player concussion.
And that's the real question left by "League Of Denial." How can we remain fans of a sport that leaves so many of its heroes damaged for the rest of their lives? As much as I loved those wonderful years of the Championship Bears, I can't help feeling guilty that so many of those players paid such a high price for just a few years of our entertainment.
BTW, the Frontline web site has a fascinating section where they are tracking every reported concussion this season.