The NFL’s callous disregard for its players’ well-being, now being documented in lawsuits by former players, is nothing new. I saw it first-hand when I covered the Raiders from 1967-71.
Kent McCloughan and Dan Birdwell ended their careers prematurely by playing when they already had serious knee injuries because they knew if they didn’t play, they’d be replaced. In the dressing room at the practice field, the trainer put out large plastic containers of pills, so he couldn’t be accused of prescribing them personally. I never knew what was in those pills, but it probably wasn’t aspirin.
Bob Albo, the team physician for the Warriors for many years, was a close friend of Al Davis’ but he resisted Davis’s requests to be the team doctor for the Raiders because he knew he’d have to compromise his ethical standards in the NFL. And Davis was no worse than other team executives. It was the team across the Bay, the 49ers, who were successfully sued by Charlie Krueger for more than $2.3 million because they withheld the severity of a serious knee injury that put Krueger on crutches post-career and allowed him to play through it.
Subsequent 49ers managements apparently did not learn from that. Among those involved in the latest lawsuit filed against the league last week for illegally supplying players with painkillers is Jeremy Newberry. The former offensive lineman has said publicly that he has Stage 3 kidney failure because of drugs given to him during his career, which was mostly spent with the 49ers.
And if you think the current 49ers administration cares more about its players, look at what they’re doing with Aldon Smith. This is a young man who clearly needs to be in a program, but GM Trent Baalke keeps saying he’ll be fine. He and coach Jim Harbaugh want Smith on the field.
The league appears to finally be getting more serious about trying to curtail steroids use. League authorities have known of the problem for some time: The term ’roid rage started with football players in the late ’80s, nearly 30 years ago.
Many in the media think the big steroids problem is in baseball, which is an indication of their ignorance. In fact, steroids is a much more serious problem in the NFL, where there are 350-pounders who have virtually no body fat and can run like the wind. How did they get that way? Not by eating Wheaties.
With players who are as big and muscular as this and are running much faster than players from previous eras, the collisions are frightening, causing not only physical damage but mental. Only recently has the NFL started to realize the danger of concussions, the subject of another lawsuit which was settled for $765 million only to have a judge reject the settlement for fear it wouldn’t be enough to cover everyone.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has always been cognizant of the one guiding principle for commissioners: Find ways to make money for owners. The NFL has never been more profitable as a league, as teams put up more costly new stadiums and price old fans out, an experience that is currently hitting longtime 49ers fans hard.
Now, though, Goodell is taxed with a much more difficult assignment: Changing management’s callous attitude toward players. The future of the NFL may be at stake.