Most reports of Alex Karras’s death noted that he had dementia, but not that he attributed his dementia to his years playing in the NFL. Nor did they mention that he was one of the players suing the League for concealing what it knew about the long-term effects of concussion. These omissions do a disservice to Karras, to his family, and to all of us who love football.
I grew up watching the Colts, by which I mean the BALTIMORE Colts of the 1960s, of Johnny Unitas-Ray Berry-Lenny Moore fame. (If you don’t recognize the names, just trust me: we shall not see their like again.) That team included the tight end John Mackey. So when I saw a bit of news tape showing Mackey sitting in a nursing home while his wife tried to help him recognize himself–himself!–in his football jersey, I was sickened by the damaging effects of the sport I love to watch. Later that year Mackey died of fronto-temporal dementia; but still I kept watching.
Six months before, a member of my beloved 1985 championship Chicago Bears had killed himself, leaving behind a plea that his brain be autopsied. Dave Duerson too proved to have had extensive brain injury, in the form of chronic traumatic encephelopathy; but still I’d kept watching.
I thought of both men when I heard of Karras’s death, and it finally took. No matter how exciting and graceful the game–and, having been taught to watch it by my father, I’ve relished both the excitement and the grace for nearly 50 years–their lives are too high a price to pay. It’s time to stop watching.