Legendary Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka told a packed house Monday he disagrees with those calling the concussion issue a death knell for the game of football, but he asserted that the NFL must do more to meet its responsibility to its players.
Ditka addressed an audience of about 150 at City Club of Chicago’s monthly public affairs forum, titled “Concussions in the NFL: Whose Bell Was Really Rung?”
“I don’t know how we got to this. To say that we have to abolish football, I think would be silly. I think we have to look at some things very seriously though,” he said, pointing to Thursday’s Super Bowl rematch game and aggressive hits to the head sustained by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who wasn’t taken out of the game.
“I mean, if you’re advocating abolishing the game, I don’t know. There’s a lot of money being made,” Ditka said. “I watched that game. I saw the play. A player does not want to come out of the game. He wants to be out there with his teammates. That’s part of it. I don’t say it’s right. But that’s just part of it, his love for his team. Maybe 30 years down the line, he might not feel the same way, and maybe that team may not be so loyal to him.”
Ditka and the panel took on the issue currently rocking the NFL as it seeks to settle more than 5,000 concussion-related lawsuits filed in recent years by more than 20,000 retired players. Settlements are expected to surpass $1 billion.
Others on the panel included attorney Tom Demetrio, who represents plaintiffs like one of the panelists, Liz Nicholson. An ambassador of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, Nicholson’s husband, NFL veteran Gerry Sullivan, suffered serious cognitive injuries. Chris Nowinski, president of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, also was a panelist.
“We started Gridiron Greats because guys were slipping through the cracks, and nobody was helping. Nobody was listening to them. We created awareness, and it helped some people,” Ditka said.
“We didn’t have the answer, but it was not our responsibility to have the answers. The responsibility falls on the National Football League, and it always did. You have a lot of guys out there to whom you have the obligations and responsibility to help,” he said of the NFL. “So do the right thing. It’s time for you to do the right thing.”
Nowinski offered sobering findings of brain research identifying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, in 90 of 94 donated brains of former NFL players; 48 of 58 former college players; and seven of 27 former high school players.
Nicholson shared even more sobering accounts of increasing aggression, rage, isolation and depression she and other wives see in their NFL husbands suffering from the disease.
The head hits to Newton in the Panthers and Denver Broncos game came as the league battles criticism that it hasn’t done enough to protect players from hits potentially leading to head trauma. A class-action settlement is on hold as the estate of former running back Cookie Gilchrist, one of 70 players who had originally rejected the NFL’s offer, has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I wanna go back to my childhood. My family was poor. We didn’t have anything. We had family. We had love. But I loved football, and started playing in grade school, then high school, then college. Did I have concussions? I’m sure I did, maybe one or two,” Ditka said.
“I don’t have any answers for this. But I know there is a responsibility and an obligation here. And it falls in the hands of the NFL. The game is an enormous moneymaker. But I’ll say this, no amount of money can bring back somebody that’s lost. And it won’t appease all these players, and it won’t appease all these wives. But it certainly can help them go on with their lives.”