Super Bowl victories aside, Dwight Clark’s end zone catch to win the NFC championship game in 1982 probably is the moment most savored by San Francisco 49ers fans.
Clark became an instant icon to Bay Area sports fans, and he remains a goodwill ambassador for football and the NFL three decades after his playing career ended.
This week’s announcement that Clark has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig’s disease — would be heartbreaking under any circumstances. The fact that football injuries may have caused him to contract ALS adds another dimension to the tragic news.
“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this,” Clark said in a letter to fans. “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did.”
That isn’t idle speculation. Medical experts suspect a link between head trauma and ALS, a neurological disease that gradually weakens the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe. There is no cure.
NFL players are four times more likely to die from ALS than the general U.S. population, according to a study published in the journal Neurology in 2012. Players in speed positions such as wide receiver, which Clark played, were found to have a higher risk of neurodegenerative mortality than lineman.
Clark, who can no longer run or button a shirt and struggles to lift anything weighing 30 pounds or more, called on the NFL and players “to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to head injuries, the NFL doesn’t have a great record.
Clark isn’t the first former NFL player to contract ALS (or even the first ex-49er). Studies have found high rates of Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder that can only be diagnosed postmortem, among former players.
The NFL settled a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of former players who accused the league of covering up its knowledge of the link between playing football and brain disease. But the pay out — up to $1 billion over 65 years for medical benefits for former players — pales next to the league’s $13 billion in annual revenue.
The league has adopted rules restricting head-to-head contact, and it donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health in 2012. But congressional investigators concluded that NFL officials inappropriately attempted to influence the selection of NIH research applicants.
“The NFL did not carry out its commitment to respect the science and prioritize health and safety,” investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a report made public last year.
ALS research programs received $115 million over about six weeks in 2014 when millions of Americans enthusiastically responded to the ice-bucket challenge — pouring cold water over their heads to solicit donations. One of the beneficiaries discovered a gene associated with ALS, which could lead to new treatment possibilities.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last year that there are risks to sitting on the couch. And there are larger risks to ignoring safety hazards on the gridiron.
Here’s a challenge for the NFL: Pour a larger share of the profits into research of brain injuries for the sake of Dwight Clark and other athletes who risk their health to make the league so successful.