Duerson brain trauma frames 18-game resistance

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist

It was suspected former NFL player Dave Duerson suffered from the same chronic brain disease that afflicted other football players before him. The disease that caused smart men to lose impulse control and their heads were breached by the many stinging tentacles of depression and dementia. The disease that, in short, might have caused Duerson and other ex-players to lose their minds.

Then, this week, scientists revealed it was official. Duerson's brain was put under a microscope and the culprit, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, had ravaged Duerson's mind the way it has other college and pro players.

Dave Duerson ended his own life at age 50. (Getty Images)  
Dave Duerson ended his own life at age 50. (Getty Images)  
The news went viral across the NFL. Players texted and talked extensively. There was confusion and anger but also retrospection and now, in some ways, Duerson's name is becoming a rallying cry as players fight with the owners over a new collective bargaining agreement.

We may have the face of the NFL lockout and it isn't a bunch of lawyers or appellate judges. That face just may be Duerson. Let me explain.

The core of the players' issues is the 18-game season. They hate it or, at the very least, they want to be highly compensated for it. The reason they hate it is because of the damage it does to their bodies -- and brains. Certainly not every player is passionate on the issue and when some see news of CTE they turn off the television or click on another link. They block out the frightening information and just play some damn football. Then worry about the repercussions later.

But to a growing number of players, Duerson was a cautionary tale and a reminder of why they don't want the 18-game season.

In fact, several officials within the former players association explained that the 18-game season never has been extensively discussed in negotiations with the owners. Why? When owners first brought up the idea, the players wouldn't talk about it. They still haven't, players said.

"We view it as a health issue and quality of life issue," one player texted to me.

"It's amazing to me that we have pitch counts in youth baseball to protect children's elbow ligaments, but we do not count how often we hit [athletes] in the head to protect their brains," Chris Nowinski, one of the directors of the Boston University-based group that is researching sports-specific brain injuries, told the Toronto Star.

The tricky part, actually, the devastating part of Nowinski's study is that while concussions are bad, the cumulative effects of overall hits (not even hard ones) can be just as problematic.

Think of it this way. Many NFL players have been in the sport since they were kids, maybe 10 years-old or so. They may not get concussions, but they receive hundreds if not thousands of smaller hits along the way. All of those smaller hits add up to a big one. Then toss in the massive, head-rattling hits that do cause concussions and the scope of the problem is even worse than thought.

This is why Duerson is becoming a rallying force among a significant number of players. Expansion to an 18-game season only potentially worsens the situation. Owners say if the preseason is concurrently reduced by two games, then the season is balanced. The problem is many veterans skip large swaths of the preseason, and the regular season, obviously, is far more intense. And think about this: Coaches would treat those preseason games -- since there only would be two -- like gold. Starters would play more -- often much of the game -- so the net effect of adding two regular-season games, despite cutting two preseason games, would be as if the league added three or four regular-season contests.

Duerson committed suicide at the age of 50 by shooting himself in the chest. Researchers believe CTE is the reason for many of Duerson's personal troubles late in his life.

I don't know if that's true or not but suspect it is. What I do know is that players are watching the Duerson news closely, and in his death Duerson might be on his way to being the face of this lockout.


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