In a recent episode of HBO's Real Sports, Bryant Gumbel spoke with several members of the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose historically dominant season ended with a devastating rout of the New England Patriots. If you lived in Chicago during their reign, or really anywhere near a television or radio, there was no escaping the '85 Bears. There was "The Superbowl Shuffle"--predicting a national championship halfway through the season (to the chagrin of several members of the team). There was the cover of Time magazine. There were the TV spots. The inevitable SNL sketch. They were superstars.
But some of that light has dimmed in recent years. Former quarterback Jim McMahon now experiences extended periods of depression, and has struggled with suicidal thoughts for years. He has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Nearly half of McMahon's teammates are now suing the National Football League for the injuries they've suffered playing the game. William "The Refrigerator" Perry can hardly walk. Keith Van Horne claims that the team medical staff concealed--with the aid of generous distribution of pain meds--the fact that he was playing on a broken leg. Wilber Marshall is on disability. Richard Dent describes himself as "very damaged goods." At the age of fifty, Dave Duerson shot himself in the heart so that his brain could be donated to the NFL brain bank. His son found his suicide note, instructing the family to have his brain studied.
Near the end of the piece, Gumbel asks former Bears head coach Mike Ditka whether player injuries will be the cross on which the NFL is nailed. "Let me ask you a question better than that," the coach replies. "If you had an eight-year-old kid now, would you tell him that you wanted him to play football?" I wouldn't, Gumbel says, would you? "No, I wouldn't. That's sad. My whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward."
I'm going to watch the big game tonight, just as I do every year. I'll drink beer and eat wings. I'll laugh at the good commercials and mock the bad ones. But every time players knock heads, or the game is stopped for an injury, I'm going to think about this Real Sports piece. I'll recall Mike Ditka, revered by millions as a god of football, looking out into the middle distance and admitting that playing the game just isn't worth the risk. And I'll wonder whether the same could be said about watching it.