The pro football season opened last night with a game on NBC – colliding, to the delight of Republicans, with President Obama’s latest dithering televised address. Collectively, fans are wondering why kickoffs have to start at the 35-yard line this year rather than the 30. Most haven’t given a second thought to the death last Sunday, at 56, of Lee Roy Selmon, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Hall of Fame defensive end in the seventies and eighties.
They should. Though no direct causal link can be established between Selmon’s fatal cerebrovascular accident and the no-longer-quite-so-well-covered-up epidemic of traumatic brain injuries in football, the scenario in the round amounts to another grotesque twist on the fatal flaw of America’s sport. And the sooner we have a real conversation about all this, the better. It is not a problem that can be willed away by hard counts, play-action fakes, or John Madden’s belated brand of “concussion awareness.”
A revered figure in the Tampa Bay community, Lee Roy Selmon had numerous business interests, including a popular chain of sports bars. He was athletic director at the University of South Florida, 2001-04.
Early last week reports surfaced of a new lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, on behalf of retired players, most of whom had played for the Bucs, against the National Football League and two helmet manufacturers. Like other recent litigation – the mass action represented by Thomas Girardi of Erin Brockovich fame, and another in which the most prominent plaintiff is Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon – this one alleges a cover-up of known evidence of the long-term effects of football-inflicted brain trauma.
Both Lee Roy Selmon and his brother Dewey (who also played for the Bucs) were listed as plaintiffs in this new action, but that turned out to be a mistake. Their attorney, David Rosen, who was representing the Selmons in other matters (notably, a contemplated lawsuit on behalf of retired players for non-head injury disability claims) took public responsibility for a clerical error, and amended the court papers to remove the Selmons.
Incredibly, Lee Roy Selmon then suffered a massive stroke on Friday and died two days later.
Was the stroke football-related? I don’t know, except to observe that it’s for us to find out and for the NFL to hope we don’t. Also that it’s not a question the mostly timid and incurious mainstream sports media are eager to pursue.
(As an aside, exactly what constitutes mainstream media in this day and age? The online sites Slate and Deadspin just launched an NFL “season-long partnership” of bull-slinging. In the series’ first entry, author Stefan Fatsis breaks wind about how “for the first time in several years, there’s an absence of headline-grabbing negativism in the NFL right now.” Speak for yourself.)
Strokes, like spinal-cord injuries, are a different phenomena than chronic traumatic encephelopathy (CTE). The delivery system, however, is identical. In pro wrestling, Bret Hart’s 1999 stroke in his early 40s, which partially paralyzed him, almost certainly was a byproduct of botched “sports entertainment” stunts. Last year another World Wrestling Entertainment legend, Ricky Steamboat, nearly died from a brain aneurysm – later euphemized to a “burst capillary” – caused by a fake beatdown by a posse of bad guys on live TV.
One exception to the list of journalists flinching from the implications of the Selmon story is Joey Johnston of the Tampa Tribune. In an email, Johnston told me that the potential parallel of the errant report of Selmon’s involvement in a lawsuit, followed by his being stricken, was chronicled by his newspaper “the day of the stroke but not mentioned the day of the death. There’s an element of conjecture there, sure, but it all makes you wonder.”
Johnston led the reporting team for a lengthy July 25 article in the Tribune about the lifelong health price paid by Selmon’s teammates on the 1979 Tampa Bay team that almost reached the Super Bowl. I highly recommend “Broken Bucs,” at http://duke1.tbo.com/content/2010/jul/25/260710/bucs-first-success-came-costly-toll/sports-bucs-broken/.
Selmon was no Dave Duerson – the player who committed suicide at 50 earlier this year, with a final request that his brain be donated for research. Unlike Duerson, Selmon did not loudly and publicly deny what was becoming widely known about concussion syndrome. Unlike Duerson, Selmon didn’t live to see his judgment, businesses, personal finances, and family life go to pieces. Finally, unlike Duerson, Selmon didn’t serve on a joint league-NFL Players Association board which reviewed disability claims, and rejected many of them.
Of course, by that point Dave Duerson himself was no Dave Duerson. He had CTE.
Irvin Muchnick is on the web at http://concussioninc.nethttp://concussioninc.net.Filed under: Archive