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NFL players just can't help themselves

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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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Lost amid dispatches from the NFL Scouting Combine was the death of Shawn Lee, a defensive tackle on the 1994 Chargers team that went to the Super Bowl.

Lee played 11 seasons of pro football, six of them with San Diego, where he and fellow lineman Reuben Davis were known as “Two Tons of Fun.” He was 44 when he died Saturday, and The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the cause of death as cardiac arrest brought on by double pneumonia.

In other words, unless you were a Chargers fan, you probably didn’t notice. The untimely deaths of former NFL players — especially those who labored at the behemoth positions — seem to be an occupational hazard.

Saturday, it was Lee. Nine days earlier, it was Dave Duerson, a former All-Pro safety who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 50 and apparently of the belief he could be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly referred to as post-concussion syndrome.

And on the eve of what seems like an ever-more certain lockout, it got me thinking. Never mind that the NFL takes in $8 billion in annual revenue — easily the greatest money-making venture in the history of professional sports. Now the owners want a longer season with shorter salaries. It’s kind of like asking for an 18-game schedule at 14-game prices.

Still, you don’t hear about owners dying young.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson, for example, is 92.

The Titans’ Bud Adams is 88.

Al Davis is 81.

Of course, there is no evidence that owning an NFL franchise increases one’s life expectancy. Conversely, there is nothing, at least not yet, to suggest Lee or Duerson died for reasons related to being former NFL players. At this point, it’s all anecdotal.

Then, again, I can remember way back when — just a few years ago — when post-concussion syndrome was dismissed as merely anecdotal. The league that won’t open its books is the same league that denied it had a concussion problem.

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If you didn’t believe the owners’ guys then, why should you believe them now?

I’m sorry for sounding like a shill for what has traditionally been a lousy union, the NFLPA. I used to think it was Gene Upshaw’s fault. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s the players themselves. A few weeks ago in Dallas, players association president Kevin Mawae — now retired after 16 seasons with the Seahawks, Jets and Titans — concluded a news conference with an impassioned sermon on the difference between players and owners.

“You can strip the business away,” he said. “You can take 22 guys and put them on the field in the middle of Nowhere, Texas . . . we’ll still go play the game because we love the game.”

He’s wrong in that you can’t strip away the business aspect here.

But he’s right in saying most guys would play for free. Yes, they do love the game — sometimes, against their own best interests.

That’s why you should be rooting for the players.

But betting on the owners.

Not all the players are sympathetic figures, of course. The Washington Redskins’ Albert Haynesworth comes to mind. Not only is he grossly overpaid, but he seems like a bad guy. Still, I’m waiting for the NFL to produce the man who put the gun to owner Daniel Snyder’s head and made him sign Haynesworth to a $100 million deal, with $32 million guaranteed in the first 13 months.

So, who’s really to blame, Snyder or Haynesworth? Why are players responsible for the owners’ profligacy?

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It’s not that the owners don’t love football, either. Some do, for sure. But writing the checks doesn’t break you down orthopedically, neurologically or psychologically. Playing the game does.

Consider the case of Earl Campbell, the most seemingly indestructible back I’ve ever seen. After spinal surgery, he’s been in a wheelchair for years. He played eight NFL seasons.

Or, how about Ray Lucas? He only played seven years — most as a backup before retiring in 2002. He’s writing a blog about his addiction to pain medication.

These are just anecdotes, of course. But you just know these guys — like Lee and Duerson — had to love the game. And just like I’m betting on the owners, I’m betting they’d all jump at the chance to have played 18-game seasons.

Tagged: Titans, Redskins, Albert Haynesworth

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