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From my perspective, the timing of Mackey's death last week, in the middle of the current labor tussle between the players and owners, was heavily symbolic.
It was almost as if Mackey inserted himself one final time in the dialogue, interrupting the ongoing negotiations over how to carve up $9 billion in annual revenues, to emphasize that the most important issue in the complex debate was the safety of the players.
If you listened closely enough, you could almost hear him thundering, "OK, I get that the money stuff is big and important, but it's time to take better care of the guys on the field. Just look at me."
Understand, Mackey's brain damage was never officially linked to his decade of butting heads in the NFL. Plenty of people who never play pro football contract his brutal disease.
That enabled the NFL to look the other way for many years as the cost of care skyrocketed, and sadly, the union didn't see fit to do much, either, challenging many former players seeking to receive benefits.
Fortunately, the narrative has changed in recent years. There has been increased scrutiny on the effects of playing the game. Several studies have concluded that players face a higher risk of memory-related diseases.
The league has instituted a set of strict guidelines for dealing with head injuries, and more importantly, the union has climbed on board the train of doing a better job of protecting its rank and file. When Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, a member of the union's executive committee, delved into the labor situation when he guest-authored Sport Illustrated writer Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column last month, he wrote:
"We cannot compromise on player safety, especially in reference to the number of hits to the head during the preseason and in practice, which neuroscientists have come to consider as important long-term as in-game collisions. We are not only aiming to protect today's gridiron stars from futures of depression and dementia, but also to lead the way in protecting our young people in college, high school, and youth leagues. This can be the sterling legacy of our generation to the future of football."
Amen to every syllable of that.
Pro football is a wonderful game that millions of people love to watch and thousands feel fortunate to play, but denying the risks – and the costs of those risks – was and is no longer acceptable. We know too much.
Everyone is happy to see the negotiations between the owners and players seemingly heading in the right direction, toward a settlement that would allow the 2011 season to unfold as planned. But while the focus is on who gets how much money, what's really crucial is that a new agreement contains enhanced protections for those who play the game. The absence of an 18-game season is certainly the first step in that direction.
While the league's heightened concern for brain trauma is genuine, it is incumbent on both sides to take better care of those on the field. Mackey was, if anything, an example that players weren't just gladiators, but real people with real lives and minds beyond the game. His legacy as a player is guaranteed by his place in the Hall of Fame, but his legacy as a cautionary tale is just as important and should always be heeded.
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*