When I was growing up the national sports pastime was baseball. Football, basketball and hockey, were all considered minor sports, at least compared to baseball.
This dynamic began to change in 1966 when the upstart American Football League, which played a wide-open, fan-friendly game, merged with the National Football League. Then, after Super Bowl III, when Joe Namath’s Jets upset Johnny Unitas’ heavily favored Colts, pro football’s popularity skyrocketed. Today the NFL is a $7 billion a year enterprise and is the most followed, most prosperous sport in America.
Over 100,000,000 people worldwide watch the Super Bowl. But behind the glamour are the NFL’s dark secrets. The average player has a life expectancy of 55, some 20 years less than the general public. Due to chronic injuries, for many, living their dreams turned their lives into nightmares.
Roman Phifer, a three-time Super Bowl Champion, along with business partners, Rico McClinton and Joe Ruggiero, has produced a riveting one-hour documentary, “Blood Equity,” which reveals some of those secrets. The film focuses on retired NFL players with physical, emotional and dementia issues, and the struggle they have with the player’s union and the owners they made rich
There’s plenty of bone-jarring footage which fans love to see. The problem is the resulting debilitating injuries, including frequent concussions that lead to permanent brain damage. “Blood Equity” features intelligent and heartfelt interviews with such former greats as Mike Ditka, Harry Carson, Willie Wood, Tony Dorsett and Darryl Johnston.
It also features a moving interview with Hall of Famer John Mackey and his courageous wife, Sylvia. Mackey suffers dementia to such a degree that he can barely recognize a photo of his own children.
Years ago Mackey developed frontotemporal dementia. Today he’s in an assisted living facility, as is Willie Wood. It’s commonplace for former players to be denied care after retirement. Some end up homeless or living in shelters, or, as in the shameful case of former Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame center, Mike Webster.
Repeatedly denied help from the NFL, Webster died penniless and disoriented from a neurodegenerative disease caused by his football injuries. Webster’s estate won a judgment for $1.18 million, which the league had the nerve to appeal. Fortunately, the decision was upheld in a federal court in 2006.
The NFL has essentially pitted current players against the former players. In “Blood Equity,” we see the late Gene Upshaw, former union president, comment that he didn’t have to answer to the former players, as they didn’t pay his salary ($5,000,000 annually). Sadly, the conflict is common. Younger workers, in this case players, want “theirs now,” not realizing that one day they will be the retired worker.
The players association claims there’s no link between brain injury and football. Medical science, however, is proving otherwise. Recently, the league has responded to public pressure, albeit minimally, with the “88 plan.” Named after Mackey’s number, it provides $88,000-a-year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care.
Even Johnny Unitas, the NFL’s iconic quarterback of the ‘50s and ‘60s, was mistreated. He lost total use of his right hand, with the middle finger and thumb disfigured from being repeatedly broken. Having had his disability claims consistently denied, Unites died in 2002.
The producers’ purpose for making “Blood Equity” was to educate viewers and seek solutions for improving life for those playing in one of the world’s most violent games. It’s a fascinating and disturbing look into a sport that brings joy to tens of millions. But be forewarned, you won’t watch an NFL game quite the same after viewing “Blood Equity.”
Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.