When the NFL and former players agreed to a landmark settlement worth an estimated $1 billion over injuries caused by head trauma, the league was likely hoping to put the controversy surrounding concussions behind it. The NFL was wrong.
Two former football greats have recently announced they are suffering from brain diseases likely caused by rough play in the NFL, continuing to bring attention to the ongoing issue of head trauma and long-term brain injuries related to football.
First the wife of former Chicago Bears and Kansas University star running back Gale Sayers told the Kansas City Star that he was diagnosed with dementia four years ago. A few hours later, former San Francisco 49ers star wide receiver Dwight Clark announced on his website that he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Columnist Vahe Gregorian spent time with Sayers’ family and found out more about the 73-year-old football great, fondly nicknamed the Kansas Comet. His wife, Ardie, said that Sayers had been diagnosed just four years ago but that the disease’s onset likely started as far back as 2007.
Although she said that Sayers is physically as healthy “as a horse,” he sometimes struggles to have conversations and often forgets where he is. They work on simple things like signing his name.
“I say, ‘OK, come on, let’s fill up this page,’” Ardie Sayers recounted to Gregorian. “‘I’ll write one, and then you write one.’ At times you can wait 30 minutes, or maybe 10 minutes. And then he’ll do it like there’s never been anything wrong. It takes a lot of patience.”
Although the Sayers family didn’t keep his illness a secret, they decided to finally share it publicly — both to raise awareness about his situation and to dispel false information people may have spread over the past few years.
One of the most damning quotes in the article points to the potential cause of his dementia.
“Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, ‘Yes, a part of this has to be on football,’” Ardie Sayers told the Kansas City Star, adding, “It wasn’t so much getting hit in the head … It’s just the shaking of the brain when they took him down with the force they play the game in.”
Clark Vows to Fight ALS Diagnosis ‘Like Hell’
“After months of tests and treatment, I got some bad news,” 60-year-old Dwight Clark wrote on his website March 19. “I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I have ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Those words are still very hard for me to say.”
Since he started feeling weakness in his left hand in September 2015, he has visited six neurologists and three ALS specialists to eliminate the possibility of other diseases.
“In addition to losing strength in my left hand – which makes opening a pack of sugar or buttoning my shirt impossible – I have now experienced weakness in my right hand, abs, lower back and right leg,” Clark said. “I can’t run, play golf or walk any distances. Picking up anything over 30 pounds is a chore.”
He said the only good news is that the disease seems to be progressing more slowly than in other patients. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It manifests itself differently person to person, but it can affect speech, muscle control and even breathing.
The cause of the disease is unknown, but Clark has some thoughts on what may have contributed.
“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this. I don’t know for sure,” he said. “But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”
Some NFL Players Consider Early Retirement
The news comes about a month after the registration period opened for former players to sign up for the settlement, which offers baseline neurological testing for all players and financial compensation for those with certain diseases.
Sayers’ and Clark’s diagnoses, along with the strong connection between football and neurodegenerative brain diseases, has made many former players reconsider playing in the league.
Miami Dolphins tight end announced his retirement earlier this month over concerns about his health after suffering four concussions in six seasons.
“If I didn’t get concussions, I’d probably keep playing,” Cameron told ESPN writer Pat McManamon. “It’s one of those things. I can’t risk my mental health in the future. I don’t have any symptoms now. I’m perfectly fine. But they can’t tell me with 100 percent certainty that if I keep playing and I get more concussions, that I’m going to be OK.”
Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is also considering retirement over health concerns, according to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
After the team’s loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, Roethlisberger would not commit to returning to the field before talking to his family.
“I’m not trying to be a drama queen or whatever they say I am,” Roethlisberger said. “And I’m not saying I’m not coming back. I just think it’s prudent for anyone who’s played the game as long as I have to talk to the people you love and make the best decisions about your future for you and your family. All that says about me is that I’m smart.”
As news about brain diseases in former players and stronger evidence linking football to long-term injuries continues to come out, more and more players may start considering their futures every time they step on the field.