The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


November 10, 2013

They're mortal, not invincible | Why do we place NFL players on pedestal?

JOHNSTOWN — Pro football has never been more popular, but our society is beginning to have serious discussions about the game and its future. Or at least it should be having them.

The issue of head injuries has become a driving force in the game over the past few years. Having to write a

$765 million check – which is what the National Football League agreed in August to pay to settle with more than 18,000 retired players over concussion-related brain injuries – will always make a business sit up and take notice.

One of the players who was part of that suit is Pro Football Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh legend Tony Dorsett. The 1976 Heisman Trophy winner at Pitt has been diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”

The disease, commonly known as CTE, has become far too prominent among former football players, although in the past, doctors could only diagnose it after death.

Researchers now believe they can properly diagnose it in the living, as they did with Dorsett and seven other former football players. A symptom of the disease is brain degeneration “associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia,” according to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Dorsett is far from the first NFL player to be diagnosed with the disease. Mike Webster, the Steelers Hall of Fame center who was homeless for a time before his death at age 50 in 2002, is believed to hold that distinction. Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection at linebacker who committed suicide last year at age 43, was diagnosed with CTE.

But, with what we’re learning about the very real health problems that players from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s are facing in their post-football days, we have to wonder: Is it worth it? Players put their bodies on the line for years, knowing that could be doing long-term damage, but the love of the game and sizable paychecks kept them from worrying about what might happen to them down the road.

Still, the sport, which is thrilling to players and spectators, continues to captivate our nation. It can provide positive role models for young people, such as Johnstown’s own LaRod Stephens-Howling and Andrew Hawkins, both of whom proved their naysayers wrong by overcoming long odds to reach their NFL dream. But it also produces plenty of examples that children should not follow.

The latest, if accusations are true, comes from Miami, where Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito has been suspended for allegedly bullying teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito is accused of numerous instances of bullying including leaving a vitriolic, racially offensive voice mail for his younger teammate, who eventually left the team due to emotional problems. The things that Incognito has been accused of doing and saying are the exact opposite of how we teach our children to act.

But for some, the blame has been shifted to Martin. He’s “too soft” for the NFL, according to some. Many athletes and writers have tried to shrug off bullying and hazing in NFL locker rooms, saying that the testosterone-fueled sport plays by a different set of rules than the 9-to-5 workaday world. And it does. But we must begin to ask ourselves, has it gone to far?

We have elevated NFL players and coaches to a cult status. They’re bigger, stronger, faster and more powerful than the rest of us. They’re the people we wish we could be. They feel no pain, but only inflict it upon others. They’re warriors who we pay exorbitant sums of money to do battle every Sunday. And we love every minute of it.

But, as Dorsett and Martin have – in two very different ways – shown us the past week, NFL players are mere mortals. They suffer very real injuries, both physical and emotional.

Maybe it’s time we stopped pretending that those behind the face mask and the NFL’s shield are invincible. Maybe it’s time we stop asking so much of them.

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