A word about Alex Karras

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.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

21 thoughts on “A word about Alex Karras”

  1. the NYT obituary mentioned those things about karras.
    but there i was in front of the television again this afternoon.

  2. I’m out, too. I barely even remembered that football was playing today until my father-in-law mentioned having to convince a bar to switch to the playoff game. It doesn’t help that the quarterback of my team probably got away with rape.

    1. …to be clear, he had to convince them to switch a TV from the football game to a baseball playoffs.

  3. So you play a game where you run around and fling your body into other people as hard as you can and you try to hit people so hard that you either make them drop a little inflated piece of leather or lay them out on the ground so that they can’t get up…………AND YOU ARE SURPRISED THAT THIS TYPE OF BEHAVIOR COULD LEAD TO PERMANENT DAMAGE TO THE BRAIN OR ANY OTHER PART OF YOUR BODY????? Give me a break. These guys make tons of money playing this silly game. I don’t spend my time worrying that they may get brain damage from it.

    1. “If you didn’t want to get black lung disease, why the hell did you work in a coal mine?” “If you don’t like mesothelioma, then you shouldn’t have worked in a shipyard.” “Just look at him, lying underneath an overturned Corvair without a care in the world. Lucky duck.”

    2. You know who also makes tons of money too?
      The owners and TV stations.

      If I pay two bums $20 to fight, who is the real moral leper?

    3. (1) The tiny fraction of these guys who make it to the NFL, and of these the tiny fraction who last more than a short time, “make tons of money playing this silly game”. These qualifiers matter.
      (2) The ones who do manage to “make tons of money playing this silly game” were paid that money for their marketable game-playing talents. They weren’t paid it in return for the long-term destruction of their bodies and minds. Had they known they were selling their bodies and minds, they might have bargained harder.
      (3) All twenty-year-olds think themselves immortal; twenty-year-old athletes doubly so. Even if they had been told the price their bodies and minds would later pay when they signed their contracts, they probably lacked the capacity to do assess this. There are deals people are not competent to make, even if they claim to want them, especially when what is on offer is the apparent realization of their dreams and the dreams all young men in our society are told to share.
      (4) If you are injured in the course of the performance of your professional duties, it is understood to be the responsibility of the employer to care for your injuries. This is the case for miners who decades later get asbestosis, and it should be the case for linebackers who decades later get trauma-induced dementia.

  4. I grew up watching the ‘Friday Night Fights’ with my parents. After encountering a couple of former practitioners of ‘the sweet science’ who I’d seen as a boy, I’ve not been able to watch another fight.

    As someone who has fond memories of growing up with football, playing it (poorly) in high school, and watching thousands of hour of it in person (I went to a college game Saturday) and on TV, I am in mourning for its loss. But I can feel myself turning against football. Afterall, we’ve known about head injuries for 110 years, since the days of the ‘flying wedge’ and TR’s saving of college football.

    I liked what I saw of Karras. He seemed like a stand-up guy. And, he could be very funny. I mourn his loss and am deeply saddened by the darkness of his final years.

    Mention of his dementia appeared in all the obits I saw.

  5. Next up for the cultural trash heap: hockey. What gets me is the cheap hypocrisy – football and hockey long ago evolved into full on gladiator combat, blood sport for empire’s masses. (Anyone interested in a mesmerizing eulogy of football fall from grace must read Fredrick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes). Let’s just be honest and make MMA the national sport – absolutely zero hypocrisy there, just two seriously dangerous professional hit men out to inflict maximum physical damage as quickly as possible. Now THAT’S what I call entertainment.

    1. MMA is devoid of muscular Christianity, so the wowsers won’t go for it. It’s also shy of team spirit, so it wouldn’t be big at the shamateur level. I’m afraid we’re stuck with football, unless the US has a mass conversion to muscular Shinto, in which case we could pick up sumo, which has its own health problems.

    2. There actually is a rules change that hockey could make that would drastically reduce the problem: play no check. It wouldn’t eliminate it as there is still contact, some of it quite hard, but the high speed, open ice hits that cause the most damage become a thing of the past.

      This isn’t a theoretical idea, either. These are already the rules of women’s hockey. I have found that I really like the game played this way. Without checking, the tactics of playing defense are drastically altered in ways that I find appealing. There is a lot more poke checking and attempts to steal the puck. When I watch men’s hockey now, I find myself noting all the times when throwing a body check is the inferior play from the standpoint of winning the game.

      A serious attempt to get the NHL to go to no-check rules would have the additional benefit of prompting Don Cherry to deliver a truly epic rant.

      1. “A serious attempt to get the NHL to go to no-check rules would have the additional benefit of prompting Don Cherry to deliver a truly epic rant.”

        his head would asplode, hopefully

  6. By now, the brain injury problem in problem in pro football is fairly well-established. However, that is the tip of the iceberg. The same problem exists in college and high school football and even, to a lesser extent, in women’s field hockey. See here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1941291/

    The vast majority of participants will never play pro sports. However, they run significant risks of permanent physical disability. I fear that these sports are too embedded into our social fabric to be excised. The only solution, therefore, is to develop rules and equipment that minimizes the risks.

  7. I regularly listen to sports radio when I’m in the car and every single mention of Alex Karras’ terminal illness and then death mentioned his dementia, the fact he attributed it to playing football, and that he was part of a lawsuit against the NFL. Sports radio has in fact been all over this issue to a much greater degree than the mainstream media.

  8. Yet during yesterday’s games, I saw a league-approved PSA talking about all they are doing to study and minimize head trauma issues. The Player’s Association was in on it, and Ray Lewis appeared at the end of the spot. IIRC, it directly spoke to parents, basically saying it’s OK to let your kids play football, the NFL is ON IT.

    I’m not to giving up on the game yet, but I’ve had similar thoughts. If the game dies, it dies on a lack of new talent as the high school programs find it harder and harder to get recruits with parents that will sign that permission slip. Baseball found a new wealth of talent in the Caribbean and Far East when US athletes turned to other sports, American football has no such talent reserve to dip into.

  9. Well, duh.

    You and T-N Coates (and many others) have done a great job of deluding yourselves.
    And that includes all the hockey apologists as well…I’m looking at you, Don Cherry.
    Wake up and STOP celebrating the big hits.

  10. Thank you for the post. I feel the same way and I trying to give up watching the Chiefs. I played football for 11 years and Alex Karras was on of my heroes. It’s a start. 30

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