Monday, February 04, 2008

Paying the Price

Amid the fanfare and hoopla that accompanies any Super Bowl, its worth remembering that the pro football takes a terrible physical toll on the men who play the game.

The Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger recently examined the price paid by five former players, all with connections to the Magnolia State. Former Cleveland Browns offensive guard Gene Hickerson, who was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, suffers from severe dementia. There’s no proof that Mr. Hickerson, a star at Ole Miss who was also named to the NFL’s “All Decade Team” in the 1960s, was aware of the induction ceremony.

As with others who suffer from the condition, Hickerson’s dementia has not been traced to a specific cause. However, some doctors believe that repeated head slaps from defensive linemen—then allowed in the NFL—contributed to his illness. Researchers at the University of North Carolina have determined that former NFL players who endured head trauma during their careers are 37% more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s than the general populace.

Meanwhile, one of Hickerson’s rivals, former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Ben McGee, is dealing with his own medical issues. At age 70, he can barely walk, 36 years after his last NFL season. Simple acts, such as getting out of a chair, have become difficult. At the peak of his career, McGee made $65,000 a year. Today, he receives an NFL pension of only $200 a month, with no assistance for football-related medical problems.

In selected cases, the league is providing more assistance. Gene Hickerson qualified for a recently-implemented NFL program, which provides $88,000 a year toward long-term care and medical expenses. The so-called “88” plan honors former Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey (who wore that number on his jersey), and also suffers from dementia. Without assistance from the NFL, Hickerson’s son would have been forced to liquidate family assets to pay for his father’s care.

Younger players interviewed for the series worry about similar, long-term health problems, but many are in a better financial position. Former All-Pro tight end Wesley Walls made millions as a pro player, and has health insurance through his commercial real estate development firm. At age 41, he recently underwent hip replacement surgery and expects more trips to the operating room as he ages. He wonders how his health will be 20 or 30 years from now.

Walls believes the NFL, which has mushroomed into a $7 billion-a-year industry, has enough money to provide more help for disabled players, particularly those who played before the era of multi-million dollar contracts.

Pro football is (obviously) a voluntary career choice, reserved for the best that ever played the game. But it’s also clear that the league can—and should—do more to help their former heroes, men who paid the price on the field, and are paying it again in the final years of their lives.

Read the entire series here.

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