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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Junior Seau and the End of the NFL As We Know It

Junior Seau, former 10-time All Pro linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, died yesterday of a gunshot wound to the chest. Police are investigating it as a suicide.

We don't have enough information to determine if this was similar to the death of Dave Duerson, the former All-Pro safety who shot himself in the chest so that science could examine his brain for CTE, but the similarities are, at least on the surface, a little eerie. After all, most people who commit suicide try and shoot themselves in the head. The chest is an odd target, especially with a pistol.

What will we find when Seau’s autopsy is made public? Will we find evidence of CTE, the same as with Duerson? Either way, the toll that the NFL takes on its players is getting to the point where it simply cannot be ignored.

This reminds me of pro wrestling, in a way. Remember recently when Chris Benoit, a guy who everyone said was a class act and model citizen, suddenly murdered his family and committed suicide? When they did an autopsy, they found the brain of an 80-year-old. I mean, take a look at this page and see how many pro wrestlers died at a young age and of what: Heart attack, drug overdose, suicide, heart attack, drug overdose, and on and on.

The thing is that football is supposed to be more professional than pro wrestling. It's supposed to be somehow more sophisticated and balletic, even though deep down we know it isn't. We know that these are seriously strong men who are colliding into each other at full force with the intent to "pop" or "send a message" to the ball carrier.

Yet, at the same time, we want to kid ourselves that the game can somehow be made "safer." Roger Goodell will hand out suspensions for bounty programs and fines for "bad apples" like James Harrison and we'll keep trying to tell ourselves that concussion awareness, better training and an improved focus on player safety can fix these problems for good.

However, looking around at the game as it stands, can you see it lasting for much longer?

Think of it like this: Let's say that from here on out, all new players are totally safe from concussions and CTE. Wonderful!

However, what about players who played in the 60's? 70's? 80's? 90's? 00's? They're still around, and they're going to have problems for the rest of their lives. Even if all current players are safe, we’re still going to be hearing about concussions and concussion-related symptoms for at least the next twenty to thirty years, if not longer.

There are some cases where baseball, basketball or soccer players die young. Ken Caminiti died at 42, Len Bias died at 21 and Fabrice Muamba very nearly died on the pitch a few months ago. However, Caminiti was an admitted steroid user, Bias took cocaine, and Muamba had an unknown heart condition. There are extenuating circumstances in these instances. By and large, players who finish up their careers in other sports go on to have long lives with their wits intact. Former baseball and basketball players have their wits about them enough that they can own teams and run them successfully. Are there any football players who played in the trenches that can say the same?

So the question becomes: Are parents going to want to let their children play a game where some of its notable stars have their lives destroyed afterwards? Why would you play a game where you have no future after you're done playing, especially when there's so much more money to be made in baseball, basketball and soccer?

It doesn’t matter what football does at this point. It doesn’t matter if they wrap the players in bubble wrap, put bumpers on the sidelines and cover the field in down pillows. It doesn’t matter if they change to one-hand touch or outlaw any form of contact other than hearty handshakes. The damage has already been done.

I don’t agree with Gregg Easterbrook, writer of Tuesday Morning Quarterback, on much anymore. However, I will agree with him on this point: There is no axiom that states that football must remain popular, and sadly, I think we're looking at the last ten great years of football. The pipeline will be empty of great players, and people will move to different sports.

I certainly don’t feel comfortable watching it anymore myself. It’s kind of like watching dogfighting: The dogs have implicit trust in their owners to treat them right, and the owners abuse that trust by putting them in dangerous situations. Football players for years have been misled about the extent of damage that the game can cause, and players such as Jamal Anderson and Don Majkowski are suing the NFL over it.

Consider the case of Jamal Anderson. In 1998 he carried the ball for a then-record 410 times and caught 27 passes during the regular season. I want you to add it up: At least 437 times in a span of 17 weeks he was hit hard in an attempt to bring him down, and then another 80 times during the playoffs. That’s not counting broken tackles, blitz pickups, or any other contact he may have sustained. If Anderson only broke 5 tackles a game (which is an underestimation) and picked up the blitz once per game (also an underestimation), it’s not inconceivable that Anderson was hit 631 times, give or take, within a span of five months of his life. That’s not including practices.

Yet Anderson kept playing. Why? Because he didn’t want to let his teammates down, didn’t want to let the fans down and didn’t want to let his coaches down. At no point did anyone step in and say, “Look, Jamal is great, but we’re hurting him. He needs to rest this week. If he wants to play, let’s make sure he’s aware of the risks before he plays.”

“That’s absurd,” you may say. “He’s a football player. That’s how they play. It’s what they do. They leave it all on the field.”

It’s true, every player knows that football destroys your body. They’re glad to do it. It’s a sport of glory and honor, where your teammates are your brothers and your family. You’re war buddies, getting injured together, getting into scrapes together, and doing everything you can to win the battle. Every player knows the toll that the sport will take on your knees, hips, shoulders, and back. They know that it cripples the players that play it, but they expect that after it’s all over they can move on and use the one part of their body that hasn’t been damaged: Their brain.

As far back as 1994, the NFL was conducting research into the problems with concussions. At the time, they said that there were no problems. All was copacetic, concussions had no long-term effects, and players could keep on bashing their brains in against other players with no consequences. The science was found to be faulty and the doctors discredited. Yet, the NFL did nothing. They didn’t warn players of the danger and pooh-poohed the risks to coaches and the media.

Now we turn to the case of Junior Seau. Over 19 years, he notched 1,849 tackles, or a little under 100 per year. However, on every single play, a defensive player either hits or gets hit, sometimes repeatedly. On every snap of the ball, he gave his all as he pummeled his opponent, and some of those hits landed on his head. He didn’t complain, he just kept hitting. After all, why would he stop? If he stopped, the ballcarrier would get away. He trusted that this coaches, teammates and the league itself would look out for his best interests.

A year after his playing career was finished, Seau, a man who by most accounts was a decent man, well-liked, honest and humble, was arrested for domestic violence, then ran his car off a cliff. Then, two years later, he shot himself in the chest, finally ending his life. Someone should have looked out for his mind while he was sacrificing his body for the sport. No one did.