Retired NFL Player’s Suicide Holds Message for Nonprofits

Print Share on LinkedIn More

February 26, 2011; Source: Chicago Tribune | Dave Duerson was an excellent defensive back for the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, a Notre Dame All-American, and a four-time Pro Bowler. At the age of 50, he killed himself by shooting himself in his chest – not the head – shortly after sending a text to his ex-wife that read, "Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.'s brain bank."

Duerson was on the board of PUSH Excel (and interviewed Rev. Jesse Jackson on the radio show he hosted) and a trustee on the player benefits board of the NFL Players Association.

Duerson feared he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease that has been found in several retired football players. He and friends thought he showed symptoms of CTE, but only a posthumous study of his brain tissue could confirm it. Was he suffering from CTE? Did he commit suicide because of CTE or other factors (his parents' death, his divorce, a business failure)? He was to be married to his fiancé in the spring and was working on a financial literacy program for NFL’ers. But he also knew something was going wrong – seriously wrong – in his head.

There is another not-for-profit involved in this picture: the tax exempt 501(c)(6) National Football League, whose team owners are currently preparing a lockout to demand various concessions, including two additional regular season games, from the players. NFL players, remarkably enough, are the lowest paid major league among the four major U.S. professional sports (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey), though unlike the other sports, much of an NFL player's compensation is not guaranteed for most players.

The average NFL career lasts only 3.5 years, leaving many NFL retirees in significant financial distress. The NFL's treatment of retired players has been horrendous, and while the league would debate this, most observers think that its dealing with retired players' disabilities has been paltry and embarrassing.

It's time for the NFL to wake up to the message of Dave Duerson's suicide. And it's time for the nonprofits that like to have retired players like Duerson on their boards and at their events, to do something to reduce the likelihood of future debilitating brain injuries and to help the retired players who are suffering with the results of their years on the gridiron.—Rick Cohen

  • N. Misgana

    Amen, Rick. There are also myriad race and class issues involved in the CTE scandal in the NFL. A recent article in The New Yorker, written before Dave Duerson’s death, touched on some of those. (January 31, 2011). Being the New Yorker, it didn’t go very far, but I agree that we who care about social justice should keep watch – and fans should tell the League they are watching.