Bernstein: Ailing McMahon Tells The Truth

Amid the joy of last weekend’s 25th-year reunion of the 1985 Bears came some sobering stuff from former quarterback Jim McMahon.

He told the Tribune “My memory’s pretty much gone. There are a lot of times when I walk into a room and forget why I walked in there. I’m going through some studies right now and I am going to do a brain scan. It’s unfortunate what the game does to you. I’ve worked with some neurosurgeons, and it’s a very serious thing, man.”

Indeed. But equally significant was his understanding of the deal he made when he decided to pursue this line of work. He is not complaining, nor is he asking for pity.

“When you play a game like this, where the guys are this big and fast, unfortunately guys are gonna get hurt,” he told Fred Mitchell. “We’re all willing to take that risk. Beats the hell out of a regular job.”

Leave it to McMahon to articulate my carefully-constructed position on head-injury risk and the NFL.

It’s this: educate and inform, from the earliest levels. Football is very, very bad for you, with cumulative dangers unseen for years. Concussions draw attention, but doctors and scientists now believe the real damage is done by the thousands of seemingly-innocuous impacts that add up in every practice and game, creating a protein sludge that gums up neurons.

Once that information is provided, however, let them get out there and destroy each other for our amusement. These are not my kids. Other adults can then make risk judgments for themselves and their children.

I am against the radical changes proposed by Rick Telander, Bryant Gumbel and others that would turn football into something rugby-ish, removing facemasks or helmets altogether and/or limiting players’ sizes.

McMahon agrees on this point, too. “Now, with the rule changes, it’s ruining the game,” he said. “This is a contact sport. These guys are getting fined for legal hits, and I think it’s ridiculous.”

It is possible that writer Malcom Gladwell is correct, when he predicts that “Football is going to turn into the Army – something middle-class parents don’t want their kids to do.” And that’s fine.

The alternative is a watered-down game nobody wants to watch – not I, and, clearly, not McMahon.

His honest opinions stood out to me, because I have been accused, unfairly, of hypocrisy on this issue. Some cannot understand how I can care about the truth of brain trauma while relishing my full-throttle NFL Sundays.

Youth football, I admit, now bothers me. When I see local high-schoolers walking to and from practice carrying helmets and pads, I can’t help but wonder what corrosive process has already begun inside their developing brains. The recent study by Purdue University scientists (showing cognitive erosion in even un-concussed HS players after just one season) was chilling.

But just as boxers decide to fight, players decide to play. As long as they, their parents and their coaches are informed and honest about what could happen to them, play on.

It is glorious to watch modern gladiators collide with purpose. Giants moving at impossible speed, graceful animals making split-second calculations of multiple vectors in explosive bursts, intricately programmed and working in unison, all while under the threat of bodily harm.

Let football be football. Don’t be afraid to tell people what a great, terrible thing it is.

More from Dan Bernstein
  • bigtime sucker

    it is more of a statement of how political correctness has made this country soft. My favorite are stories about how players played football, were drafted into service, risked life and limb and came back and played more football. Those guys were men. That said, my 5 year old will never see the inside of a football helmet, but he’s autistic, even if he shows interest, sorry can’t do it, he can run x-country or something. My 15 month old, i could put the helmet on him now, because i think he would take great enjoyment in running around and hitting people, the kid is insane.

  • Chet's Inflated Ego

    1. Malcolm Gladwell is correct in his prediction.
    We let our son play baseball (Catcher), hockey (Defense) and basketball (point-guard). But not football…Mom said NO.
    2. Jon from Montgomery is right…we need more than just Bears talk on this blog.
    3. Therefore, let’s give the Bulls some love for a good game against Denver last night.

  • mad as hell fan.....

    ah, this story has become horribly boring. Shots to the head are bad, football hurts, lethal weapons at safety/LB/DE/DT can really hurt you if they hit you hard and it can be very bad for you long term. 2+2 = 4 still right?

  • bigtime sucker

    that bulls game was entertaining, great 4th quarter, good performances, and i will take a win over denver everyday of the week and twice on sunday, but it equally sucked

    now i am as indecisive over this noah for melo deal as i have ever been. They both played like integral parts of a winning team, but it’s sooooooooooooo hard now to evaluate their value in terms of wins. Noah with the blocks and boards and if he hit his FT’S his line would be like 17 pts 19 boards and 5 blocks. melo’s line was 32 pts 8 boards 5 assists. IT’S like a toss up!!! whose more valuable, before this season started i knew, it was a no brainer, but now i am not so sure!!! ughhhhhhhhhhhhh i hate this!!! : )

    • KazooBoy

      BTS…I said a couple of weeks ago that some people, including The Sports Guy on ESPN, thinks it would be a mistake to include Noah in a trade for Carmelo. And like I also said, he’s forgotten more about the NBA than Bernstein will ever know.

      I’m not a meatball but the Bulls should keep Noah. You can’t measure intangibles and we will already have two guys who need the ball…Rose and Boozer.

  • bigtime sucker

    and how about gibson’s play as of late? what do we need boozer for? j/k
    if he continues this level of play, coming off the bench when carlos is back and in GAME SHAPE, what a boon for us coming down the stretch!!!

    • Chet's Inflated Ego

      I am hoping they can keep at .500 through the circus trip etc. and then make a big run on improving their record.

  • Beverly Brewmaster

    So this is weird. Both today and the last time Bernstein blogged about this I posted a short comment noting that cheerleading is actually, statistically, more dangerous than football (and any other major sport, incidentally). I then linked to an article discussing the dangers of cheerleading. And both times my comment disappeared within minutes. Does CBS own stock in some cheerleading company or something? Well, we’ll see if this disappears too.

    • Chet's Inflated Ego

      What’s additionally strange is that your comment came through to us as an e-mail update, but was not posted on the blog.

      • Beverly Brewmaster

        It was on the blog when I first posted it, but five minutes later when I refreshed it was gone. Conspiracy theories aside, I’m guessing it probably has to do with embedding a link; there may be some filter that thinks it’s spam.

  • charly

    So Bernstein is comfortable in the fact that the inequality in our society is reflected in the demographics of the NFL. I’m not surprised. This suggests that we should ignore the fact that there is very little potential social-economic mobility for many poor whites and as well as minorities since there remains to be a lack of resources/services for these groups to become a skilled contributors for society.

    minorities as well as poor whites inherit this imbalanced societal structure that makes the poor predestined towards failure and develops a flawed set of cultural values that emphasizes on getting rich quick schemes by utilizing their most innate attributes: athletic attributes. Along the way there are many social casualties who will never make their way to the NFL.

    • crash corrigan

      Charly, kudos on your commentary. Dangerous or risky occupations cannot be smugly summed up by the Dan Bernstein’s of the world as siimply free choice. It is not fine for the underclass to shoulder the burden of a volunteer army nor should even so-called informed athletes be allowed to destroy their health for anyone’s amusement. And as for DB comparing athletes to “graceful animals”, I thought that type of borderline racism went out a long time ago.

  • KazooBoy

    I don’t mind when basketball people have opinions but when some get arrogant (I mean you, Bernstein, Terry and L. Holmes) about how stupid it would be to not want ‘Melo for Noah it drives me up a wall. Some very knowledgable basketball people agree that it would be a mistake.

    Football as we know it will be gone within 10 years, or at least on a level with boxing. The PC police and media have a cause and they won’t stop until their work is done. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  • Bob in San Diego

    First time on the blog in a few days. Nothing much to say other than it is great the auto refresh is gone – thank you CBS for listening.

    Hot Stove question – Konerko, Jeter and Varitek are all free agents. I know that only 4 teams had captains last year (And with Sweeny getting traded, that meant at the end of the season there were only 3) – has there ever been a season where all the Captains were gone from their teams from one year to the next?

  • Likquid Swordz

    I would feel sorry for football players if they were not compensated for the risk (and some quite handsomely) they incur when they sign college scholarships and/or pro football contracts. I dont like the direction where the NFL is going for these “illegal hits” and fines associated with them. What about the receiver/running back who lowers their head prior to the point of contact? The lowering of the head plays a role in the head-to-head “hits”

    On a sidenote: If Carmelo Anthony realizes that he should play defense, then make a deal. If not, leve him be.

  • Jon, Montgomery

    I am really, really upset right now, the autorefresh thing is killing me. I tried posting a somewhat longer comment and I couldn’t. I’ve tried 3 times already. i’m done trying for today. maybe I’ll try tomorrow. but this autorefresh has got to go.

    • Bob in San Diego


      Today I noticed that the Autofresh is off – maybe it just because I’m using IE, but for the first time since it went to CBS, it isn’t refreshing. What browser are you using?

      PS – just left this up for 20 minutes to make sure and no Autorefresh.

      • Jon, Montgomery

        I was actually posting from my mobile phone. maybe it was just to much memory to post something as long as I wanted to, I’ll try from my computer tomorrow, but if they really got rid PF the autofresh, thats great news.

        by the way bob, thanks for all the podcast help when they were going through that technical weirdness stage with the old site, you really helped alot of people

  • Mike Fangman

    If I ever have a son, there is no way I’m letting him play football. The risk of injury is too great.

  • crash corrigan

    If Jim McMahon had not lucked out as QB of the ’85 Bears and lived off his so-called celebrity of that particular season for the rest of his life, he would have been forced into a regular job – post NFL career. Help Wanted – Egocentric Jerk Needed? Well, maybe he could have hosted on The Score.

  • twt

    Great article.

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