BALTIMORE – One day, some years back, I’m having lunch with Sylvia Mackey and Bruce Laird. She’s the widow of John Mackey, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts tight end who lost his mind to football injuries. Laird’s a former defensive back for those Colts. He knows first-hand about the toll the game takes on the human body as well as the brain.
All those years ago, they were merely hinting at the thing that happened last week, when the University of Maryland looked at its football coach and couldn’t decide what matters more – athletic triumph, or human life.
Finally, the school’s elders made up their mind about the death of Jordan McNair, who collapsed and died last June after a grueling, over-heated practice. And then they made up their minds again. And then again.
First, with ESPN reporting a “toxic atmosphere” inside the football program, Coach D.J. Durkin was suspended. Then, early last week, the school’s Board of Regents reinstated Durkin, setting off criticism from students protesting outside the school library.
And so, barely 24 hours after Durkin’s reinstatement, College Park President Wallace Loh over-ruled the Board of Regents and fired Durkin – and then, barely another 24 hours later, the chairman of the board resigned, noting that he had become “a distraction” during a controversial time.
Except for one thing: that “controversial time” is long overdue.
Even in the current time, with its reports of extensive brain injuries suffered by football players, we’re still not dealing with the culture of organized football, and the inherent violent nature of the game itself – and the inability of over-zealous coaches and trainers to draw the line between healthy aggression and mindless danger.
That’s why the news out of College Park last week took me back to that lunch with Sylvia Mackey and Bruce Laird.
Sylvia’s husband John suffered years of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. The National Football League, after years of denying evidence that its players had a high rate of CTE, admitted in federal court four years ago that it expects nearly one-third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems, and that conditions will likely emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.
“We’d be watching some old NFL highlight film on TV,” Sylvia Mackey remembered, “and there’d be clips of John making some incredible run, and the announcer’s shouting his name, and John would say to me, ‘Is that me?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, honey, that’s you.’ He had no idea.”
Bruce Laird nodded his head solemnly. He knew the stories, and he knew the culture of football that led to such trauma.
“Me,” he said, “the fifth to seventh vertebrae in my neck, I have no cartilage. Both shoulders were separated numerous times. Arthritis in my hands. I got scars – see here? – from reaching through face masks, grabbing pieces of tooth. See this scar? That’s from teeth.”
He grimaced at the memories. “I had 12 concussions in 14 years,” Laird said. “They’d stick amyl nitrate under your nose and say, ‘Go back out there, you just got your bell rung.’ You’d say, ‘Yeah, man, I can go.’ Now I’m losing my car keys, my cell phone. But that’s the game.”
Poor Jordan McNair, down in College Park, was just the tragic end result of the game’s excesses. Players extend themselves, and they pay the price for it. If they don’t extend themselves, they’re accused of dogging it.
This goes on with teams at all levels, from high school through the pros. When 5,000 former NFL players sued the league, saying they’d hidden the dangers of concussion, the league finally admitted it and established a pool of $675 million to cover injuries and diseases linked to head trauma the players sustained during their careers.
But what about all the routine injuries – the ones suffered by players along every level of organized play? The game punishes them in so many ways. Championship teams are created not only by athletic skills, but by which team has the fewest crucial injuries.
It’s a game in which Bruce Laird considers himself lucky that his worst effects are merely physical. Sylvia Mackey was considered a war widow when her husband was still, technically speaking, alive.
And young Jordan McNair’s parents are left bereft by a game of violence, and a coaching staff that couldn’t tell the difference between aggression and the complete destruction of a human being.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.