The mood when President Obama belatedly celebrated the world champion 1985 Chicago Bears at the White House in October 2011 was understandably celebratory. The most notable exception to the prevailing happiness was when Obama spoke about former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February 2011.
"Hopefully lessons from his great struggle, with the kind of brain injuries those hits might have caused, will help today's players down the road," Obama noted somberly.
During a recent interview with Bill Simmons, the editor in chief of Grantland, Obama again spoke about Duerson and the concussions plaguing NFL players. Before taking his life, Duerson left instructions for his family to donate his brain to science in order to see if brain trauma suffered during his 11-year career caused his later mental and emotional problems. A study conducted by Boston University later revealed that Duerson had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a trauma-induced brain disease.
"I actually knew Dave Duerson, and used to see him at the gym sometimes," Obama reflected while speaking with Simmons at the White House. "[He] couldn’t have been a nicer guy."
After identifying NFL concussions as one of the most troubling issues in sport, Obama named two complicating factors that make solutions difficult to achieve: the combination of size and speed possessed by today's players as well as the willingness of those players to risk their health.
"Now, the problem is, if you talk to NFL players, they’re going to tell you, 'That that’s the risk I take; this is the game I play.' And I don’t know whether you can make football, football if there’s not some pretty significant risk factors."
Although current NFL players like Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski have indicated that they are indeed willing to risk their health for gridiron glory, there is an increasingly vocal contingent of current and former players that do not espouse the view attributed them by Obama. On the same day that the Obama-Simmons podcast was posted, Pro Bowl lineman Kris Dielman retired from the San Diego Chargers to avoid further head injuries.
In October, not longer after Obama welcomed the Bears to the White House, Dielman reportedly suffered a seizure on a team flight back to San Diego just hours after suffering a concussion during a game against the New York Jets. Dielman suffered the concussion during the fourth quarter but remained in the game despite appearing disoriented.
“It’s just one of those plays. I banged my head a little bit, and now I’ve got to deal with it,’’ Dielman told The Associated Press after the incident.
The NFL's in-game concussion protocol became a point of contention again later in the season after Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was also allowed to re-enter a game after suffering a concussion. Although the Browns defended their handling of the McCoy situation, the league did conduct an investigation and announce changes to concussion protocol.
While discussing the NFL's concussion problem with Simmons, Obama highlighted the increased size and speed of modern players in relation to the ones you'll see when "you watch the old tapes from the '50s and the '60s."
"They look like they’re going in slow motion," Obama noted about the players from previous generations. "And now, what, they just had the Combine and they're talking about some guy who is like 340, who runs a 4.8?"
While the staggering physical tools of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, who recently ran the 40-yard dash in just 4.38 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, may bear out Obama's point about today's players being faster, there are many former players who believe the NFL they experienced decades ago was no less dangerous than the iteration of the league that is poised to welcome the 6-foot-2, 220 lb. quarterback from Baylor.
Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett recently joined a group of more than 300 former players suing the NFL, its teams and helmet maker Riddell for not doing more to protect players from concussions and educate them about the dangers of head trauma. Due to the tragic circumstances of his death, Duerson has become, for many, the symbol of the concussion issue for the NFL.
"Stories like this, with Dave, really sink in," retired journeyman offensive tackle Kyle Turley told TIME shortly after Duerson's death. "We all see it," he said. "Just being down there at this year's Super Bowl and looking those former players in the eyes, it was a very sobering experience. They all had that same look. It says, 'Only we know what is happening to us.' It's a scary thing."
Just over a year since his death, Duerson's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL.
"If they knowingly failed to inform and implement proper safety concussion procedures, then their indifference was the epitome of injustice," Tregg Duerson, the son of the former Bears' player, said at a press conference. "The inactions of the past inevitably led to the demise and death of my father."
Could the NFL have done more? Or is Obama right that football, at least as we know it, cannot exist without "some pretty significant risk factors" that will continue to put the long-term health of players in jeopardy?