Jim McMahon provides important voice against NFL
BY RICK TELANDER Sports Columnist June 19, 2014 10:18PM
Former NFL football quarterback Jim McMahon speaks during a news conference Tuesday, June 17, 2014 in Chicago. McMahon spoke of his ongoing battle with dementia that he believe is related to his years of hits he took while playing in the league. McMahon is part of a federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco accusing teams of illegally dispensing powerful narcotics and other drugs to keep players on the field without regard for their long-term health. He led the Chicago Bears to victory in the 1985 Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Stacy Thacker) ORG XMIT: CX104
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Updated: July 21, 2014 4:14PM
It’s hard to know what to think about Jim McMahon.
The former Bears quarterback, now 54, seems to be a part of every personal-injury lawsuit against the NFL that comes along. In 2012, he was Sports Illustrated’s cover boy for concussion-related early-onset dementia. He was one of thousands of plaintiffs in the big concussion suit against the NFL. And he’s part of the recent class-action suit that accuses NFL teams of giving dangerous drugs to players without explaining their long-term effects.
McMahon says he can’t remember things, barely can leave his home. Yet we see him playing golf, often barefoot, in bizarre outfits. He had headaches so bad, he says, that he likely would have committed suicide if there had been a gun in his house. There was depression, too.
He eventually determined his headaches stemmed from a neck issue, but the brain deterioration continues. So he says.
There is no reason to doubt him, but the likely culprit — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the wasting disease caused by repeated brain trauma — can’t be accurately diagnosed until death.
No one should be surprised by brain damage to any former players. We’ve had our fill of Mike Websters, Dave Duersons and Junior Seaus, haven’t we? Aren’t the alarm signals at full decibel?
Yet it’s somehow hard to emphasize with the former ‘‘Punky QB,’’ the I-don’t-give-a-damn guy who previously was on the cover of SI in 1986, in full Bears uniform, riding atop bleached-blond Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth’s shoulders, wearing sunglasses, a headband with the word ‘‘Fridge’’ scrawled on it and a Super Bowl XX ring on his left hand. On his middle finger.
That was kind of the salute McMahon generally gave to the world. If football was a damaging game, he seemed to embrace that aspect more than most.
He was the one who head-butted his larger teammates. He was the one insisted on playing when he was half-crippled. He was the one who seemed to take solace in the odd, macho world of pain and self-destruction that engulfs elite football players, riding its thrilling anarchy like a dolphin on a wave.
He was no pleasure to be around for sportswriters, that’s for sure. When he blew his nose on a San Diego writer during his days with the Chargers, it was a perfect statement of his feelings.
McMahon had been a superstar at BYU, setting 71 NCAA records from 1977 to 1980. He fancied himself a tough, self-made winner who didn’t care whom he offended en route to wherever he was headed. And if injuries were part of that journey, who could he blame but himself?
‘‘Maybe if I hadn’t had broomsticks broken over my back or hadn’t been whipped with belts, I’d have grown up a mental wimp,’’ he said of his upbringing in his 1986 autobiography, McMahon.
Yet Chicago fans loved him for what he brought them: the only Super Bowl crown in team history. And they still have an affection for him that probably never will subside. For all his juvenile attitude and snottiness, he displayed the true toughness football people appreciate, the trait that shows you will subjugate your own well-being for the benefit of others — both teammates and spectators.
But are McMahon’s issues — divorce, alienation from some teammates, no discernible work skills or even a desire to work — products of the head abuse he took in the NFL? And, if they are, where does personal responsibility kick in?
He is a whistle-blower. And whistle-blowers are sometimes deranged, sometimes hallucinatory.
But they are often right, and their personality defects are ultimately irrelevant to their cause. Whistle-blowers are ridiculed, degraded and marginalized to the detriment of society.
The NFL is a big, big dog, and it can bite hard. It can lobby in Washington with a pittance of its billion-dollar income and make everything come out the way it wants.
Thus, McMahon is needed. Necessary.
Who knows what really is going on in his frazzled brain? But it doesn’t seem to be a pleasant thing.
A new study authored by Jeffrey Bazarian, an associate professor in the University of Rochester’s department of neurology, shows that subconcussive hits in football — those that don’t cause amnesia, confusion, concussion or loss of consciousness — leave brain-damage effects for at least six months. Later than that, we don’t know; the study is too recent.
McMahon was honored Wednesday in Chicago by the concussion-focused Sports Legacy Institute for his efforts to inform people about head trauma.
Maybe you remember when he mooned a helicopter.
One wonders if he does.