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Despite huge payout, NFL concussion issue hardly settled

Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahtalks during press conference University St. Francis Joliet IL Thursday October 18 2012.

Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, talks during a press conference at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL on Thursday, October 18, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 30, 2013 5:24PM



Now that the small matter of $765 million has been tentatively settled, what about the big stuff?

What about the future of football? What about the safety of NFL players going forward? What about the high school and college players who might one day play in the pros? What about all the ones who won’t? What might their brains look like if the sport doesn’t change?

Or are chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and ALS acceptable outcomes as long as we spectators enjoy the show?

The problems don’t go away with the announcement on Thursday that the NFL will pay a large, though hardly ruinous settlement to victims over concussion-related brain injuries. But maybe this is how the league will do business in the years to come. Maybe it ends up being a coldhearted ATM — stubbornly sticking to a violent, hugely popular game and spitting out cash later to the broken gladiators.

But the money won’t bring back former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who was diagnosed with CTE related to brain trauma after his 2011 suicide.

It won’t make early-stage dementia go away for former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who has trouble remembering what he was doing 10 minutes ago.

For a league that makes $10 billion a year, a settlement of three-quarters of a billion dollars isn’t crippling. Painful, yes, but nothing that won’t heal. Call it a hunch, but I see raised ticket prices in your future, NFL fans.

The league did not settle with the plaintiffs for altruistic reasons. It settled because it didn’t want to be seen as liable for their injuries. It didn’t want to state that it withheld information from players about the danger the game poses to brains.

But it’s not likely to fool the victims’ families.

“The inaction of the past inevitably led to the demise and death of my father,” Duerson’s son, Tregg, had said when his family filed suit against the league in 2012.

How does the NFL square the settlement with the frightening science that led so many of the plaintiffs to sue? Will the league fund brain research that could ­fundamentally change how the game is played?

So much money and yet still so many questions.

If the research is correct — and by the way, the earth is round — then many, many more players will end up suffering from concussion-related brain issues as they get older.

Coaches at all levels of the game have made adjustments, especially in the frequency of hitting in practice. The biggest threat to players is not the obvious concussions but the sub-concussive hits — offensive and defensive linemen butting heads on each play, running backs lowering their helmets while taking on tacklers, etc. Those, researchers say, are what bring on CTE.

There’s no denying that the sport’s appeal is built on collisions and that our national obsession with the game has something to do with the savagery of it, at least at the NFL level.

In the same way we ignore the role drugs play in preposterously big players dominating the league, so we look away as players go down with head injuries. As long as it’s not our son whose brain is scrambled, who cares? And, by the way, when is Bears receiver Earl Bennett going to be back from the concussion he suffered early in training camp?

It’s true: Players knew it was a violent game as they advanced farther into it. But even 10 years ago, they couldn’t have had any idea it was this dangerous. Even if you give the NFL the benefit of the doubt and accept it didn’t know the extent of the damage to the brain 20 years ago, it certainly has to know better now, its legal protestations aside.

So how will it react going forward? Given all the ­previous denials, it’s hard to trust the people in charge.

It probably would be naïve to bring up morality right now, but let’s be naïve for a second. Was there ever a moment when commissioner Roger Goodell was seized by a bout of conscience? Something like: We’re killing people. Somehow, I don’t think he would allow it.

Maybe he should. If the NFL doesn’t change, parents will do the work for them. More and more are saying they won’t allow their children to play the game.

Last year, McMahon told Fox-32 that if he had to do it all over again, he would have played baseball.

Sadly, there are no do-overs when it comes to brain injuries.



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