By Jason Keidel
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Even for those of us who detested the Dallas Cowboys, those of us who would root for Red Russia at the height of the Cold War over “America’s Team,” there was no way not to look at him.
Perhaps the most regal running back in NFL history, no one looked the part more than Dorsett. His long, lean silhouette darted between tackles and dashed down sidelines for over a decade. While so many Cowboys built their image on hubris and and touchdown dances, Dorsett played with an understated splendor that hasn’t been seen since.
Dorsett represented the football aristocracy that the Cowboys tried to hard to promote, but he did it with class. Though I was weaned on Mean Joe Greene, my father was quick to remind me that Dorsett came from Aliquippa, spawned by the fertile football soil of Western Pennsylvania, where my old man was born.
But now, the laconic, iconic halfback for the Cowboys during the ’70s and ’80s, the last, enduring face of the Tom Landry dynasty, is running against an opponent far more daunting than even the Steel Curtain.
Dorsett has early signs CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a cocktail of consonants, which, distilled, means death. A recent interview with Dorsett, where he choked on tears while confessing the slow erosion of his life, left many of us crying with him.
Sadly, CTE, like ALS, has joined the sporting lexicon, one of the sad acronyms that has now become synonymous with another three-letter abbreviation.
Roger Goodell has stood stone-faced and declared that NFL careers do not end in brain damage, despite the mushrooming evidence that it does.
This matter, the protein that grows in the brain until it can’t function, resulting in memory loss, mangled motor skills, slurred speech, and wheelchairs, has gone from speculation to confirmation.
If the NFL’s brass weren’t so busy with plausible deniability, brushing and flossing their press releases, polishing the shield, we could find answers sooner. If both sides, the employer and employee, joined forces to hasten detection and treatment, then this matter wouldn’t matter as much in ten years. Everyone is so scared of guilt, liability and lawsuits that we’ve got this nauseating, corporate staring contest that ends in depression, homicides, and suicides.
Two years ago, I wrote perhaps the best piece of my life on this site. I was so appalled by the reaction to Junior Seau’s suicide – many ignoramuses calling him weak, soft, or selfish – that I wrote an endless manifesto on mental illness.
My family is festooned with suicide and suicide attempts, and those who don’t suffer from said malady assume that everyone who does is somehow soft. Too often we confuse illness with weakness, practicing pop medicine on people we’ve never met. Sometimes shutting the f— up is the best prescription.
It’s time to stop spinning, doctoring, deceiving the men who literally bled for the sport that made Goodell an absurdly rich man. It’s time to not only remember but rebuild the broken bones and scrambled brains that came with all those violent Sundays. It’s time to do more than send a limo to some broke and broken Hall of Famer’s house, wrap him in a yellow jacket, comb his hair, and parade him around Canton for a few hours, then belch him back into his tattered house.
The NFL, now so image-conscious, has grown cultural membranes that keep light from entering their sterile, corporate halls on Park Avenue. In trying to win this PR battle, they don’t realize that everyone loses. When players die, the product will follow.
Even Gene Upshaw, the former players union boss, said he wasn’t obligated to help retired players because they didn’t pay his salary. It was an appalling posture from someone who battled with and against the very players, like Dorsett, who made NFL the Key Demo behemoth it is today.
Perhaps it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” endeavor. It’s convenient to forget an army of crippled geriatrics who do nothing but ask for money and healthcare while dropping nothing into today’s gold-plated pot. It’s a horribly myopic stance, but nothing logical could explain the wretched amnesia the sport suffers when it’s time to help their retired brethren.
Bud Selig and his well-heeled colleagues in MLB ignored the steroid disaster until it collapsed on them. The NBA ignored its increasingly tattered image as a group of street urchins more interested in weed, rap solos and solo, dribble-first play that just a few years ago, the Spurs/Cavs finals was the lowest rated ever.
By the way, if pro football didn’t think their product caused brain damage then why has Goodell taken a giant eraser to the rulebook? Why all this foxhole prayer? Why this retroactive, corrective campaign pretending to finally care about the players? We’ve got this contrived “Heads Up” program. They’ve legislated tackling so severely that defenders don’t know where, when, or how to tackle anymore. If someone spits on Tom Brady, six flags freckle the pocket in seconds.
Now we watch Dorsett in repose, another of our childhood heroes fading under the dim lights of dementia. Mike Webster, a pillar of the ’70s Steelers dynasty, went from a Hall of Fame luminary to living under a bridge, in his car, or any other place that kept rain off his battered brain.
I grew up on those Steelers, and Webster was one of my idols. But even in the white heat of the Cowboys rivalry, I had one eye on Dorsett, who was so majestic, running with purpose, focus, and quiet excellence.
Now it’s hard to keep either eye on the NFL, at least the legislators, who play both sides of the fence, at once celebrating the pioneers who made the game a television and cultural monolith, while quietly jamming the dagger into their backs under the guise of progress.
Amazing how Roger Goddell and his minions can look so good and so bad at the same time. Along with all the billions he brings to the owners’ pockets, he’s abandoned a legion of former luminaries who need him.
It’s an indictment on a league that has been historically and alarmingly Teflon. Murderers, rapists, dog killers, drunk drivers, wife beaters, and juicers can’t stain the shield. At least the NFL can pretend they didn’t know about certain, devious deviance until it actually happens.
But you can’t claim ignorance over the very players you promoted for decades. We still care about them, even when you stop. You can’t profit from the rugged sport heralded for balletic violence and defined by black and blue and not give them Blue Cross.
Sadly, the dollar signs and the death certificates go on Roger Goodell’s resume. Maybe he will soon see that killing the player is the same as killing the game.
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