Fixing a Broken Play

by Neil Minkoff

Who didn’t love the ’85 Bears? I did. Even when they beat my Patriots in the Super Bowl. That was one of the most entertaining NFL seasons ever. I remember it so vividly compared with other years: Walter Payton gliding down the field; Mike Singletary’s fiery intensity channeled through his eyes, spooking opposing quarterbacks; The Fridge piling into the end zone; Richard Dent charging the line of scrimmage; Mike Ditka and Jim McMahon screaming at each other on the sidelines.

What a fun season.  

Apparently I’m not alone in my fond remembrance of the ’85 Bears. The guy who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has invited them for a visit. (The traditional White House visit for the team that wins the Super Bowl was canceled that year, shortly after the Challenger disaster.)

Seriously. Who in the White House thought that this was a good idea? The optics of this are horrible. Two wars, an economy that can’t recover, the Palestinian circus at the UN, unemployment still over 9 percent, and the president will be spending his time visiting with Chicago football legends.

There is one way to redeem this ridiculous act. The president can use the bully pulpit of the occasion to call for better safety on the field and better support for the players after retirement.

The best example will be in the room with him. Jim McMahon was the quarterback for that Bears team. He has no memory left. He almost certainly has CTE, chronic traumatic encephalitis. This is a syndrome where repeated blows to the head lead to large protein deposits interfering with normal brain function. It is associated with memory loss, depression, paranoia, and anxiety.

Dementia has long been a severe problem for former NFL players. In the past, the 88 Fund was established specifically to support care for football players who develop dementia. There is a growing movement among NFL retirees to donate their brains to the center for CTE at Boston University Medical School. Only via autopsy can the true extent of damage be documented and the diagnosis of CTE confirmed.

That is why it is so shocking to me that players still headhunt on the field and fans scream for harder hits from the stands. When a helmet-to-helmet collision occurs on a football field, a player suffers brain damage. NFL players should find it unacceptable behavior to cause brain damage to a colleague.

I have no patience for fans who tell me that the NFL is getting too watered down with the new rules against these types of hits. I’ve taken care of men like these. As they age, they literally become helpless, lost in their own skulls. They are as scared as frightened children, because they don’t know where they are and don’t remember who is talking to them.

These men literally give their all to play football. Many have no other skill.

The NFL has a moral obligation to protect its players, even from themselves. The president can call for safer play on the field. He can push the NFL to take these hits even more seriously. He can use the ’85 Bears as an example to younger players who feel invincible now, but who will pay a price later. He can turn an upcoming farce into an uplifting moment that would resonate more than a Super Bowl champion visit.

Right Field

Brief chronicles of our sporting times.