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Dave Duerson's suicide could be a turning point for NFL

BILL DWYRE

Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson killed himself last week and asked that his brain be studied. If researchers find evidence of a chronic condition, it'll be up to the NFL to take immediate action on head injuries.

February 21, 2011|Bill Dwyre

As we ponder floating bonds and working construction cranes in our quest to bring the NFL to Los Angeles, we might also ponder the story of Dave Duerson.

He is the former Chicago Bears safety, most notably with the 1985 Super Bowl champs, and a businessman who grew a food company into a multimillion-dollar success. He had 11 years in the NFL and was selected to four Pro Bowls.

In other words, Duerson was more than just another guy.

Thursday, Duerson shot himself to death in his home in Florida. He was 50.

It took a day or so for the official word that it was suicide. It took another day or so for the real shocker to be revealed.

He shot himself in the heart, not the head. He did so, it became obvious, because he had left a request with relatives that he wanted his brain tissues examined. Word now is that that will be done at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE as it is now known, first acquired public recognition when it was identified in the brain tissue of former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters after his suicide in 2006. There have been other cases of CTE found in the brain tissue of former football players who committed suicide. It has been a murky concept for years, its connection to football injuries denied by most involved with the game, including medical personnel. Determining the presence of CTE can be done only on a deceased brain.

So Duerson gave his to medical science in the only way he could right now.

It is a story of unimaginable tragedy and incredible significance. If you are NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and you hear about Duerson, you want to lock yourself in a room for a couple of hours and alternately scream and cry.

Goodell has finally begun to address the issue of head injuries and their lasting effect on NFL players. It has been there for years, and been repeatedly sidestepped as the league flourished and got filthy rich.

Various NFL alumni groups meet on a regular basis now and focus their anger on paltry pension and medical benefits. Attending a meeting becomes a shocking visit to a roomful of formerly famous and now elderly men, many bent over or walking with canes. Some talk about forgetting things a lot. At one a few years ago in Las Vegas, one of the prominent organizers didn't come because his memory loss embarrassed him too much for him to see his friends.

This 2010 season was the year of concussion awareness. To his credit, Goodell made it so. Spectacular hits, the kind that leave TV sports directors drooling and recipient players concussed, were penalized. The climate was altered. Players knew that, although horrible, spearing, head-first hits would get them on "SportsCenter," they also would lighten their wallets.

Now, Duerson has raised the stakes. He has apparently martyred himself for a cause. And if he properly identified his symptoms, and the Boston University doctors confirm this in the next several months, no amount of rationalizing or perseveration on head-injury issues — past or present — will be acceptable.

The ticket-buying, TV-watching public, as shallow and oblivious as it can be about anything that disrupts its game-watching and team-worshiping, will not keep funding the future agony of athletes it adored. If the Duerson incident is as it seems, and we do not pressure it to be addressed in much more than lip service and phony studies that take months or years, then shame on us.

A man apparently killed himself to be heard. What more does it take?

Suicide is tragic, the ultimate scream of pain. Now, apparently, Dave Duerson has told us where to look for the pain, so that others who put on a helmet might be spared that in the future. Or maybe we'll simply learn that the kind of athletic violence necessary in football, and in sports such as boxing, will almost certainly bring later issues. At least then, we would know.

Right now, our children begin in these sports with little thought about what they might be at the end. We don't really know, either, so we let them.

Football is not just played in the NFL. High schools ought to be concerned. Certainly colleges.

But this one belongs to Goodell and the NFL. Duerson was most recently theirs and probably most affected on NFL time. That makes this the NFL's disaster.

Plus, the NFL is the 500-pound gorilla in sports. It has Super Bowls and Black Eyed Peas at halftime and companies falling all over themselves to spend millions of dollars for a 30-second commercial. It has the financial wherewithal, and because of its size, the moral obligation, to act.

Cities that have NFL teams treasure them and hitch much municipal prestige to them. Los Angeles wants one — has two bidders — and would do the same.

But any good buyer needs to know exactly what it is buying. Now, because of Dave Duerson, the NFL has some product liability it needs to fix.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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