Mike Ditka’s statement in an interview last week that if he had a son, he wouldn’t allow him to play football was aimed at two targets: The NFL and fathers who push their sons to play high school football.
Hall of Famer Ditka wasn’t going to call out the NFL directly because he earned a lot of money and a reputation that has served him well, but he knows well that the league has always treated players poorly. Only lately, with the lawsuits brought against the league by former players has the NFL put in some safeguards — and it still hasn’t treated the steroids issue seriously.
When I first started covering pro football, in 1967 with the Raiders, I learned firsthand what a cavalier attitude coaches and management had toward players. Two starters on the 1967 team that went to the Super Bowl, defensive tackle Dan Birdwell and cornerback Kent McCloughan, stayed in the lineup despite serious knee injuries, and their careers both ended that year.
When Charlie Krueger brought a successful suit against the 49ers for having to play with a similar injury, teams finally stopped using players with serious injuries but they’ve largely ignored a bigger problem: The widespread use of steroids.
Before about 2000, players who were more than 300 pounds, usually offensive linemen, were often far overweight. Remember the Dallas offensive lines of the early 1990s or the Washington Redskins’ “Hogs” of an earlier era?
But if you go in a locker room now, you’ll see players at 350 who are buff, linebackers who are 275 but run like wide receivers. It’s not difficult to see how they got that way.
But the penalties for steroids use have been limited mainly to a four-game suspension for those stupid enough to fail the advertised testing. A penalty as weak as that is no deterrent.
The new, improved bodies are causing many more injuries, but what matters to the NFL is that they look like warriors. The NFL jargon contains many words and slogans pertaining to war, and the uniforms make them look like intergalactic warriors. Those uniforms, not incidentally, cause injury themselves. The pads linemen wear, for instance, are of the same material as that used for motorboats. As for the helmets, when I started my career in Watsonville, the high school athletic director and former coach Emmet Geiser told me the old helmets, which fit directly on the head, were safer than the helmets that followed, which caused a double hit on the heads of tackled players. Changes since have made the helmets even more dangerous, but they certainly look good.
The other part of the message was equally potent: Fathers have to quit pushing their sons into high school football. There are some boys who play because they want to but there are many who play to get the approval of their fathers. That might have seemed harmless enough at one time but as we learn about the dangers of football, it no longer seems so. It’s especially bad when a youth who has no real potential to make money or even get a college scholarship sustains an injury which affects him for a lifetime.
Ditka’s message was a powerful one. I hope people are listening.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.