This was supposed to be a celebration, but there was a sadness to it, and the gentle, aching slap of mortality, the way there might be at a high-school reunion where the star quarterback limps in an old man.
The Miami Dolphins were celebrating their 50th anniversary season with a lavish banquet at the swank Diplomat Hotel off the ocean in Hollywood, and in walked all of the old heroes, the 50 players selected as the greatest in franchise history. This was December 2015.
I recall speaking briefly that night with Bill Stanfill, the great former pass rusher. His Georgia drawl was thick. He walked slowly, with a pronounced limp. His head hardly moved, the effect of several neck surgeries. What was wrong with him appeared mostly physical. It’s what you couldn’t see that was scariest.
Stanfill, that night, had exactly 11 months to live. He would die the following November in hospice care on Albany, Ga., in the grip of dementia and Parkinson’s, at age 69. The end had been accelerated by a bad fall, but also by football. Everybody knew it.
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The downhill can be steep.
In my column from that event here is what I wrote of another old Dolphin that night less than a year and a half ago:
“Nick Buoniconti, elegantly holding a glass of white wine, looks more like a U.S. senator than a former linebacker.”
By last week, though, the once-regal Buoniconti had become the new national face of the brain trauma suffered by so many former NFL players, after a wrenching story in Sports Illustrated that appears in the issue on newsstands Monday. The lengthy piece details his deterioration, with the online presentation showing a heartbreaking video in which Buoniconti, poolside at his home, takes well over a minute to remember how to put on a T-shirt. A companion SI story depicts the similarly sad state of that era’s Dolphins running back, Jim Kiick, while a subsequent Miami Herald investigation revealed at least eight members of the 1972 Perfect Season team including Stanfill suffered or suffer from brain injuries related to football. Linebacker Mike Kolen was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After quarterback Earl Morrall’s death in 2014 an autopsy revealed CTE -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- the irreversible end result of too many concussions.
This is not a Miami problem. It is a football problem, one that hangs over America’s favorite sport like a cloud the NFL cannot wish away.
It is fitting Sports Illustrated happened to focus, though, on a middle linebacker like Buoniconti and a running back like Kiick, because those are two positions that tackle and get tackled the most, that punish and are punished the most. Kiick played only eight full seasons. There is a reason running backs are considered used up past age 30.
Zach Thomas was Miami’s middle linebacker a couple of generations after Buoniconti, likewise playing before the current “concussion protocol” intended to reverse the chances of developing CTE such as that which afflicted Hall of Famer Junior Seau when he committed suicide in 2012. I asked Thomas to recall the day he’d been drafted.
“I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast,” he said, chuckling.
The NFL hurts you. It leaves scars. Shortens lives. Sports Illustrated could have found a Buoniconti and a Kiick in any NFL city, anywhere where now-aging players got repeatedly concussed but soon returned to the field to hit and be hit again.
“We just thought we’d had our bell rung,” said Larry Csonka.
Like the U.S. government, slow to warn the public about the risks of cigarette smoking until finally issuing warning labels on packs beginning in 1965, the NFL has been even slower to acknowledge the direct links between its sport, concussions, CTE and the post-career misery that can result.
Subsequent studies have found former NFL players three times more likely than the general population to suffer neurodegenerative diseases and four times likelier to develop Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
At last, against a class-action lawsuit, the NFL reached a settlement to pay $1 billion for the medical care of some 20,000 former players. It isn’t enough -- not for a megarich league that is projected to top $15 billion in revenue in 2017.
Buoniconti told Sports Illustrated he considers the settlement to be “a joke.”
The NFL has a moral obligation to do more to take care of the Buonicontis and Kiicks wherever they exist, while increasing the safeguards that make sure players now in their 20s and 30 are not similarly seeing their golden years ruined or cut short. It is a self-interest as well as a moral one. The future of football will have itself to blame if the lessons of the Seaus and Bounicontis are not heeded.
Harvard Law School on Monday happened to release a new study by its Petrie-Flom Center that it calls “the first comprehensive, comparative analysis of health policies across professional sports leagues.” The report concludes “the NFL’s player health provisions are generally the most protective of player health among the relevant comparators” -- but that only make sense given football’s violence and long-term risks. The report also lists ways the NFL falls short or might improve. For example:
The NFL does not require preseason-physicals by a neutral doctor to determine pre-existing conditions. But the Canadian Football League does.
The NFL does not have a concussion-specific short term injury list. But baseball does.
The report also states, “MLB, the NBA and the NHL, unlike the NFL, generally offer health insurance to players for life.”
And: “Among the Big Four leagues, the retirement plan payments offered by the NFL are the lowest.” (Baseball and hockey players are vested in their pension plans on the first day they play in the league; NFL players are not).
Also, the amount of player compensation guaranteed in the NFL is “substantially” lower than in the other Big Four leagues, and with the most prohibitive eligibility rules.”
The NFL is doing more than it has, but it isn’t enough.
It is hard to fathom that commissioner Roger Goodell could watch that video of Nick Buoniconti laboring to remember how to pull on a T-shirt and not resolve that football must do more.