I remember the anguish that punctured my thoughts when Junior Seau, a star in his own right on the gridiron, placed a handgun to his chest and took his own life eight months ago at his California home. Sitting in my room, I sunk into my chair and spoke no words for more than an hour while giving all I could to refrain from shedding any tears. His death struck me in an unforgettable way that positioned myself, once again, at a crossroads with football and its place in our culture infatuated with the image of the modern-day gladiator.
On May 3, 2012, the day after Seau’s suicide, I scrambled for answers with the shadows of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) looking over my back. I ran a number of searches in Google’s archives for newspaper articles from the 1990s to find some sort of explanation for his actions, but rarely was Seau’s name mentioned directly in relation to a head injury. Although my efforts were rather premature and assuming, there had to be some sort of correlation between Seau’s noted altercations behind closed doors with the thousands of hits his brain endured over the course of a 19-year professional career.
There are, of course, many different storylines that people turn to to explain something so tragic immediately after its occurrence, but confirmation of my original hypothesis (shared by many, I’m sure) by the National Institute of Health several days ago left me in an inexplicable state of unsettled anxiety. Though I inferred Seau would be diagnosed postmortem with CTE, my response to the official announcement was still along the lines of, “Unbelievable.”
My thoughts certainly go out to Seau’s family and friends who, as noted throughout the media the past year, could not pinpoint any reason for him to put an end to his life. The grim details of his suicide seemed so incompatible with who he was and how he interacted with others. Seau, to many, was a hero. He was an inspirational figure for young men growing up playing football. He will forever be remembered for his legendary play, but his legacy now serves a more pressing purpose that the game’s culture absolutely must learn from and account for.
With fragments of his cortex resting beneath the microscope of neuroscience, Seau becomes yet another former athlete to be added to the list of broken beings mentally left astray after their careers ended. His case measures in comparison to that of Dave Duerson’s, who similarly shot himself in the chest, and to those such as Shane Dronett and Andre Waters with the list going further from there.
The damage of Seau’s suicide marks a stain on the shield of the National Football League and the game itself as well. Deaths and diagnoses of CTE in such athletes, sadly, does not give us any more answers than what we already know today. Football is still in the midst of a concussion crisis, a concept coined by Christopher Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute, but I’m not sure that I’d go as far to say that questions are being asked now more than ever. They’re just not.
Though efforts in the medical community have been made to address an issue that has been identified in more than fifty former athletes (and that number is surely greater than reported), our sports culture still remains in the dark. This extends beyond the realm of the professional athlete too. Our athletes playing at the youth, high school and collegiate levels of the game, and their families, need to be closely incorporated in this discussion because of football’s down-the-road implications. From what I’ve managed to observe over the past couple of years, questioning the game has faded significantly, especially since the most recent NFL lockout.
Fans want more, too. Helmet-to-helmet penalties resulted in an uproar, and such outrage died down to a certain degree but has slowly come to increase with every passing week. The adjustment to kickoff rules had similar outbursts as well. And, as disappointing as it may be, healthy conversation regarding traumatic brain injury in sports has become so stagnant to the point that its content results in hardly any lasting emotional effect. Seau had CTE? Okay. Well he knew what he signed up for anyway. Right?
I venture to say ‘no’ to that last sentiment. I find it hard to believe that anyone who grew up playing football in the 1970s and 1980s, like Seau, gave any consideration of cognitive health when on the field or in the locker room. How could Seau consider the relationship between concussions and football when it wasn’t something that was openly talked about, on all fronts?
Sure, notions of relativity between brain damage and football may have grown in the medical community during this time, but its common knowledge that such information was rarely, if at all, relayed to professional athletes. Case in point: look at the many concussion litigation cases developing today that largely feature former players who played decades ago. As I have said before, it’s easy to say that Seau knew what he was getting himself into, but then again, it’s an incredibly difficult argument to make. (I never knew what a concussion even was until I was hospitalized at 15-years-old).
There’s obviously a financial incentive to playing football at the professional level and it’s definitely something that weighed in heavily on decisions made by both Seau and his peers. However, it’s also fair to say that professional athletes, or rather men playing a child’s game (and don’t get me started on the machismo element of the game), would have no reason to think that they’d be psychologically-stunned minds years after the conclusion of their careers. There’s no way in telling that such athletes knew the cumulative effects of traumatic brain injury back then either.
Yes, as the years progressed there were more stories that came out about the crumbling minds of former players, but how was someone like Seau supposed to think that his game, his passion, served as the root cause for such deterioration? It wasn’t until 2002, when Seau was already 12 years into his NFL career, when Dr. Bennett Omalu diagnosed Mike Webster’s brain with CTE, and even then Bennett was ostracized for his radical suggestions.
Don’t get me wrong; today’s a different case. The literature on the cumulative effects of repeated blows to the head are plentiful and the results are widely shared and accepted. Now with extensive media coverage all throughout the country, considering all levels of the game, we learn often of young players dying on the field and NFL players acting out of character and, in some cases, committing suicide. It’s a downward spiral of a reality that “real life” has yet to embrace. It’s a cultural problem above all else, and with athletes funneling their passions into the machine of the NFL, it’s no wonder why they keep playing (with the bottom dollar, of course, always considered). If you were to tell me that the draft classes from 2010 moving forward know what they’ve signed up for, I’ll agree with you. However, with Seau, I can’t say that was the case. I can’t oversimplify such a complex issue with cliché explanations of the downfalls of men once praised for their athletic prowess and determination. These players, both past and present, knew that football would take a toll on their bodies, but I’m not so sure that their very minds were included in such acknowledgements. It goes way beyond that.
I don’t think Seau signed his first professional contract with any comprehendible understanding of concussions, willing to sign his self over to years of inner struggle and self-destruction. I don’t think the 33 other NFL players found to have CTE really knew what they were signed up for with regards to their mental health in eras uneducated and unaware of the game’s potential long-lasting effects. I don’t think Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old student athlete at the University of Pennsylvania who hung himself in 2010, knew beforehand that CTE was his future, nor do I believe that the 18-year-old high school football player diagnosed with CTE in 2009 understood the implications of his future either. It’s just not a valid argument to make when you’re talking about players that have grown up in the dark ages of the game. Many of the athletes we discuss began their careers prior to 2010 when the concussion crisis was brought to the forefront. It’s almost impossible to escape once submerged within the culture.
I still can hear Harry Carson saying, “If I knew then what I know now,” in an interview he did with ESPN several years ago talking about the tragedies he’s witnessed amongst his fellow former NFL brethren. I can also look at Tavares Gooden, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, who says now that he knew what he signed up for when he entered the NFL. These are two different eras that compliment one another in a rather interesting manner, and such eras are split toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Today you cannot repudiate the findings of the medical community with regards to concussions and CTE. It’s a reality that many athletes have now accepted with or without consideration of their personal futures. Stuck in the “now” mentality, who knows how large that list will grow in the coming years.
Football is and always will be a sport of toughness joined with a veil of secrecy that works to protect the image of strength and commitment, and concussions, the ‘invisible’ injury, remain at the bottom of the totem pole of importance in the game. Seau surely refrained from talking about his concussions because that’s what the twisted code of professional football told him to do (see Brian Urlacher). It’s more so a matter of ensuring the continuation of ignorance, also known as “pride,” than knowing what you signed up for. The very phrase, “we know what we signed up for,” in my eyes, is a simple deflection of reality and extension of my favorite slogan praised by our modern-day gladiators—“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
For Seau, the pain never left his body. It was rather sent into hibernation and revealed itself once again on May 2, 2012. The message I am attempting to get across is, no doubt, a repetitive one to say the least, but there has to be more informative and equalized discussion regarding traumatic brain injury in sports. Without such attention, there is minimal hope.
My father once told me that when he was playing high school football, he and his teammates voluntarily smashed their heads together with their helmets strapped tight as a sort of pre-game ritual. Whether it was against another player’s helmet or against a locker, he didn’t think any harm could possibly come from it. The simple act still permeates football today. Multiply that by a considerable amount, accounting for actual in-practice and in-game collisions, and you have a recipe for the unknown. My father sometimes worries about his future, and my own, echoing similar sentiments shared by Carson in his ESPN interview. You can’t tell me that he knew what he signed up for when he played in the late 1970s. He didn’t know.
There’s a lot to be learned by all participating parties in the game. My greatest concern is that we will willingly take on obscure clichés that give no answers but wipe away all questions. I firmly believe that our rhetoric applied to concussions and football alike hold the future to progress in tackling this issue. I certainly don’t want Seau’s life to be summarized by ill-informed, close-minded statements that barely stand once confronted. I hope that you share the same feeling.