Concern grows over long-term effects of football head injuries

Thomas Darden Photo by Charles Hallman
Thomas Darden
Photo by Charles Hallman


(Originally published July 5, 2012 in MSR)

Thomas Darden is among more than 2,000 former players who are suing the National Football League, arguing that the league concealed information from them about football-related injuries and long-term brain damage.

We are slowly learning that playing football can be dangerous to one’s health. At least three former pro players’ deaths, all ruled suicides, may actually be attributable to brain damage suffered from years of playing the sport.

“I forget things,” says Darden, who played defensive back for nine seasons for Cleveland (1972-81). “I may have a thought and lose that thought. Sometimes I attribute that to my old age. I’ve had a few concussions — you don’t play this game, especially if you are a defensive back and hitting people, and not get concussions.”

In his playing days in the late 1970s, Darden says medical treatment often consisted of putting some smelling salts in your nose, slapping your face a couple of times like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, and putting you back in the game. He recalled once being put back into a game after getting “his bell rung.”

“I didn’t know I had a concussion, and I played the whole fourth quarter, and I made all my [defensive] calls. Today I’m thinking how in the world I could have done that.”

I first met Darden when I was a high school junior. He and other pros played in a benefit basketball game at my school, and I was asked to operate the scoreboard clock. After that game, I went into the players’ locker room and Darden signed my program.

Several years ago — over three decades later — I ran into Darden at a church conference and reminded him of that first meeting.

The Big Ten and the Ivy League last month announced that they are cosponsoring research on head injuries in sports. The NFL in 2010 began studying the concussions issue and instituted new rules to better protect players from direct hits to their head.

Yet Darden says he’s not sure that the league is really serious about it.

“My hope is that with all the attention now, and the league having to deal with the lawsuits, and the media giving it more attention, and guys…committing suicide, that this will stay in the forefront until they figure out how to get better helmets and better equipment.

“There’s no reason why we should not…get a new helmet,” notes Darden. “[With] the technology today, we can’t figure out how to take a helmet [to] absorb the blow and distribute that collusion and impact to another spot away from your head?”

It’s also disappointing that a bunch of former players, and not the current ones, seem to be the only ones fighting for this issue, states Darden. “I don’t like the fact that we are slighted. I’d rather be a part of a whole group committed to getting…the older retired players taken care of by the league as much as possible.”

He does get a pension: “We receive ‘legacy benefits,’” explains Darden, adding that compared to baseball and basketball players, “the football players association has not negotiated or taken care of the older players.

“When we were playing, we reached back and brought in the guys as far back as the 40s,” continues Darden. “We didn’t make a whole lot of money, but we felt an obligation to make sure that those guys who weren’t receiving much in pension benefits…got a [financial] boost.”

He doesn’t sense the same understanding among today’s NFL players — that one day they will join him as former players. “I can’t put my finger on it, but I know the more money [current players] started to make, the more they started to separate themselves from the guys that started this thing.

“These guys are making so much money, and the owners are making so much more money, that it wouldn’t take that much to set aside dollars to find insurance policies for players who’ve had five or six knee operations or guys that had other aliments.”

Darden has advice for those who think football is too violent and want drastically new rules: “Changing the rules is not the answer, because when you start changing the rules, you’re changing the game,” concluding that pro football shouldn’t turn into “a game of touch.”


Did you know…?

Who is the first Black coach in the NFL? (Answer in next week’s “View.”)

Answer to last week’s question: Name the first NBA champions with at least one Black player. The 1954-55 NBA Champion Syracuse Nationals had two: Earl Lloyd and Jim Tucker. It would be two seasons later before at least one Black player, Boston’s Bill Russell, would play again on a league championship team.


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