By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) It doesn’t matter that we just wrapped up another interesting opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, nor that the Chicago Blackhawks just became the first Western Conference team to clinch a playoff spot, their ninth straight postseason appearance. Ditto that the World Baseball Classic has been supremely fun as the MLB season is less than two weeks away.
Whatever is happening in the sports world, football will find a way to barge into the conversation. Oftentimes, this is the NFL’s intentional doing. In the offseason, it strategically schedules its combine and draft as major TV events. With the exception of the sad state of the Chicago Bears, free-agent signings become the top stories in NFL markets regardless of what other teams in town are doing.
But sometimes football shoehorns its way into our consciousness in ways the NFL would rather it not. It might be players talking about a refusal to meet with a sitting president of the Unites States. The weekly domestic violence case is also distasteful for the league (but not in an actual moral way). But of late, the most unwanted conversation often has to do with health effects on former players. Within the last seven days, there has been a particularly loud cluster of this.
Former Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, 36, revealed last week that he believes his brain is affected by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“I enjoyed every minute of football. I didn’t feel like I was in the game until I got a good pop. Either I got popped or I popped somebody. You’re not supposed to be doing the things we’re doing to our bodies. CTE affects guys in a different way, and you start seeing it even in the practice of football. You get worried. I get concerned for myself. And even though I’ve never had any suicidal thoughts or anything like that, for it to happen to some great men and great football players, I know that I can’t separate myself from that crowd.”
During his playing days, Briggs was often a go-to for an interesting quote or soundbite, has been a frequent engaging guest on Laurence Holmes’s show on 670 The Score and immediately began working in broadcast media following retirement. Briggs was always one of the sharpest football players going.
And now he’s aware that his brain is betraying him.
“I know we all have it,” Briggs told The Rich Eisen Show regarding former players and CTE.
“It does affect daily life. It’s more of something that some of those that are around me say, ‘Yeah, I can see where (you have) this issue,’ or you’re stuttering a little bit, or your memory lapses here and there.
“There’s also some symptoms that I don’t even know how to explain … It’s just me during my ‘me’ time or speaking with another football player, and we’re like, ‘You have this situation? Man, I have this situation.'”
Briggs says he’s doing mental exercises to deal with his changing brain, but science tells us that’s fairly futile when it comes to CTE. Football did this to Briggs. And in mid-March football is finding its way into our conversations.
Hall of Fame Bears running back Gale Sayers, 73, is suffering from dementia, the Kansas City Star reported over the weekend. He may have developed it as far back as 2009, his wife, Ardie, told the Star. Sayers’ memories are fading, he has issues even writing his own name and he can go through periods of silence typical of someone whose brain isn’t registering what should be familiar situations. And the cruel irony is that football made Sayers while now is stripping him of himself.
“Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, ‘Yes, a part of this has to be on football,’” Ardie said, adding, “It wasn’t so much getting hit in the head … It’s just the shaking of the brain when they took him down with the force they play the game in.”
We’re at the turn of spring talking not about Sayers pitching a product or doing an autograph show but rather as a man who’s dissolving slowly because of football. This is a football conversation, albeit an unpleasant one.
Then on Sunday, Dwight Clark, the recipient of a play so famous in football lore that it’s simply called “The Catch,” announced that he has ALS.
Unlike what’s happening to the brains of Briggs and Sayers, Clark will be tortured by a keen awareness that his body is breaking down. This disease will kill him — and in a fashion just as cruel as the brain deterioration, only far more outwardly visible. To know that Clark will know every step of that deterioration is particularly frightening. I’ve known people who have lost their battles with ALS, and I still can’t imagine what it’s like to know some accelerated switch on your mortality and been flipped on and can’t be shut off.
“The one piece of good news is that the disease seems to be progressing more slowly than in some patients,” Clark wrote in a statement.
Still, a cold comfort akin to Briggs talking of doing little things to try to fend off the inevitable.
“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this,” Clark wrote. “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”
Clark made sure to make the conversation about his death sentence one of football, too. How football kills its participants is now part of the football conversation. And weeks removed from the last Super Bowl and months from the next preseason game, football makes sure it gets talked about.
Like it or not.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.