Junior Seau’s suicide last week was an absolute tragedy. How can someone who has so much, also have so many internal demons? Seau was rich, famous and admired by people around the world. He was the kind of man others wished they could be. How can such a person reach a moment so completely and utterly devoid of hope?
Some blame the sport which made Seau the man he was. His death has re-ignited the discussion about brain injury and its connection to dementia and depression. Many connect Seau’s suicide to former Chicago Bears all-pro safety Dave Duerson who also killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest.
Duerson’s final wish was to have his brain studied for evidence of trauma. Boston University researchers found plenty. According to the New York Times, a neuropathologist found “indisputable evidence” of chronic traumatic encephalopathy without “evidence of any other disorder.” In plain English, the researchers believe they found a connection between Duerson’s football related brain injuries and his declining mental state. Duerson is just one of many. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/03/sports/football/03duerson.html
Around the same time last year, Jaclyn Fujita, wife of Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, published an editorial on the issue. It’s a great read and sheds light on life off the field. She spoke of “NFL wives who watch their husbands unable to get out of a chair on a Tuesday, yet still strap it on come Sunday.” She also said she knows former players who hope their knees completely give out within five years of leaving the game, so their NFL health insurance covers the medical bills. After that, the players on are on their own. http://www.thenation.com/blog/159361/wish-nfl-wife
The easy response is the owners should cover all post-football injuries, but it’s a more complicated issue than it first appears. There’s little doubt the modern day gladiators who capture the attention of the nation every Sunday sacrifice a great deal. But they also gain a great deal. Every single NFL draft not only changes the lives of young men who play the game. It also changes the lives of everyone around them. They are given the chance to lift their entire families out of poverty. They do so knowing fully the risks they will soon take.
I sometimes wonder how many of them would accept the chance to play even if they were guaranteed to become crippled or suffer mental breakdowns later in life. If you could say, “Young man, your knees will need to be replaced when your 40.” Or, “Young man, you will be unable to function completely at the age of 50 due to a deteriorating brain.” How many would take the field anyway?
What role should the owners play? Are they billionaires who uncaringly use and abuse these young men to add to their fortunes? I hope not, but I imagine there are certainly some who do. As a Giants fan, I would like to think the Giants organization is better than that. From an outsider’s perspective, they appear to care about the players who’ve brought them gridiron glory over the years.
The NFL has acknowledged a connection between brain trauma and impacts on the field. According to the New York Times story about Duerson, the NFL contributed $1 million to the same research center which studied Duerson’s brain. By all means, they need to do more. The NFL has also changed a few rules recently to prevent head injuries. They also need to do more here as well.
What about fans like you and me? How much are we to blame? Do you love watching big hits? I know I do. One of my favorite memories of Giants football is Brandon Jacobs running over Charles Woodson in the 2008 NFC Championship Game. Loved it. How many injuries are a simple matter of giving the people what they want?
Now matter how you look at this issue, I think most people agree that more must be done. Change rules to make the game safer. Require a bigger commitment from owners and the league to address the problem. This is one of the reasons I fully support Roger Goodell’s suspensions for the various Saints involved with their bounty program. He needed to send a message and I think he did.
Now, we wait for the next message, but it needs to come soon. There are plenty of Dave Duerson’s and Junior Seau’s out there. Let’s hope they get help before they reach their moment of utter hopelessness. And let’s hope the NFL offers that help without major litigation. Perhaps Seau’s death will be enough to bring all sides to the table and make meaningful progress. Perhaps Seau’s death will help quiet the demons inside another before it’s too late. And perhaps Seau’s death will help the young men who were drafted so recently have full, meaningful careers. And then go on to live long and healthy lives after it’s over.