BY KAVITHA DAVIDSON
Legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka seems to have softened. Or least he has seemingly changed his stance on the lawsuit some of his former players brought against the National Football League alleging the indiscriminate dispensing of narcotic painkillers. It marks a significant shift in attitude for one of the league’s staunchest, old-school voices and, if nothing else, should cause some fans to rethink their own views on player safety.
To recap: Last May, three members of the 1985 Bears Super Bowl champion team led a group of retired players in suing the NFL for the practice of team doctors prescribing excessive drugs to mask the pain from injuries. The suit claims the doctors were often less than forthcoming about the severity of the injuries while regularly ignoring manufacturer’s dosage recommendations. According to the players, they were not told of the debilitating side effects from such medications, and have suffered long-term disability and addiction. At the time, Ditka responded by touting the same lines of personal responsibility and “that’s just football” that you’d expect from an NFL lifer. “The game of football has been too good to me,” he wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The meds thing ... I don’t know. If you don’t want to take them, don’t take them. I don’t think anybody ever forces anyone to do anything.”
This line of thinking is common among the old guard of players, coaches and fans who believe the dangers of football have always been obvious and that any legal action against the NFL amounts to a post-retirement money grab. But it ignores the numerous complaints that the league actively hid the consequences of head injuries and excessive medication. It also minimizes the implicit pressure to play through the pain regardless of health considerations. Success in the NFL is largely built on obedience and discipline, so if players weren’t given enough information about their own bodies, it’s understandable that they’re only now starting to ask questions.
Ditka at least acknowledges that while football may have been “too good” to him, it wasn’t very good for countless others. On Tuesday night’s episode of HBO’s “Real Sports,” host Bryant Gumbel discussed the lawsuit with members of the ’85 Bears, who describe an alarming rate of painkiller use and the debilitating damage they’ve suffered later in life. “I was eating 100 Percs a month just to function,” quarterback Jim McMahon said. He added that he also suffered from suicidal thoughts, recalling teammate David Duerson, who shot himself in 2011 and requested his brain be studied for evidence of football-related trauma.
Ditka, too, tells Gumbel of the toll the game has taken on some of his former players, including William “The Refrigerator” Perry — “a very fragile individual now,” in Ditka’s words. He acknowledges that painkillers were “plentiful,” but still questions who deserves the blame — the coach, the team, the league or the sport?
But at the very least, Ditka is laying off his previous stance of blaming the players, calling for the NFL to do more for them in retirement. (Ditka does his part for ailing retirees as president of the Gridiron Greats foundation.)
It’s worth wondering what made Ditka change his mind. Perhaps it’s the number of ways the NFL has shown it doesn’t care about players’ interests above its own. Perhaps it’s the growing litany of evidence of the tangible dangers of football. Perhaps it’s simply getting too hard for even Ditka to outrun the negatives of a game that has been so good to him. Notably, Ditka has joined the growing number of parents who wouldn’t let their children play football. “That’s sad. I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football,” he told Gumbel. “I think the risk is worse than the reward.”
Contrary to sensationalist headlines, we’re nowhere near the death of football. But Ditka’s change of attitude shows that even those most entrenched in the NFL’s old ways can change, and throws a wrench into the arguments people use to deflect blame from the league onto the players.
Kavitha A. Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View.