Saturday, May 05, 2012

Death of a Linebacker

Junior Seau's death by his own hand at age 43 is immeasurably sad. Let's not forget that remains true whether or not football was an unindicted co-conspirator in his demise.

The evidence that football brings a high risk of brain disease or injury, a risk that gets higher the longer one plays the sport, is strong and getting stronger now that there's much more research being done on the issue.  Seau played football at its highest and most violent level for 20 years. Suicide is an act of anguish and despair, and mental depression is a known result of some of the brain disorders the repetitive collisions of the head football generates. It's natural that Seau's death would immediately be linked to a moral dilemma our society doesn't want to face, but is having thrown in its face. Our most popular sport shortens the lives and ruins the health of many of those who play it.

Natural, but wrong. Millions of people whose most violent physical activity is opening cans suffer from depression, and a number of them commit suicide every year. Seau's desperate act may have stemmed from issues within himself that had nothing to do with the toll of his risky trade. Probably not, but why don't we wait and see? The pain of those he left behind is hard enough to witness.

Football's dangers would still be with us this morning if Seau was. In a sharp little irony, Seau's suicide drove the news of Roger Goodell's showboating suspensions of New Orleans Saints players for the "bounty" program right off the front of the sports pages. Goodell's Canutian decision was the NFL's way of insisting "we can make our sport safer" when medical research is suggesting "no, you can't." The research indicates that while the big hits are dangerous for players, the ongoing lesser hits that place on every play are just as if not more dangerous for the fragile packing of brain inside skull.

As of now, and likely as of some time to come, football and science have no answers for that one. Maybe there will be one. Auto racing has dropped its fatality rate astonishingly due to the creation of practical fireproofing for clothing and other improvements in fire safety technology. Boxing, on the other hand, remains about as dangerous as ever. The revenues of the two sports in 2012 demonstrate that safety is good business.

Seau's family has allowed the researchers at BU to examine his brain. If a link between brain degeneration and his awful death gives them some measure of comfort, then that's what I hope they find. But it won't change either of the two facts we're dealing with here. Junior Seau's death at 43 is an unspeakable waste. And football is bad for the human body, bad in ways we're just beginning to know.

I love football. I love watching it, loved writing about it, and most of all, I loved playing it. Being on the field offers an addictive adrenaline rush like few others I have ever felt. That's why I am grateful beyond words to the Powers That Be that I was not much good as a football player. If I had been good enough to play until I was 40, or even 20, I would have. And as much as I love the game, I'm fonder of the me that currently exists, the one football got cold-cocked only once.

It is my belief, a disquieting one, that football's dangers cannot be reduced to any significant extent, only mitigated and accounted for. That is, injuries like concussions will have to become NFL career alterers (seasons lost, careers ended) by rule, and that our richest sport will be forced to spend very large sums on the medical and psychological monitoring of its former players as part of the cost of doing business.

No game whose fans suspect has the capacity to cause its Hall of Famers to become suicides is likely to thrive. Guilt is every bit as powerful an emotion as despair.

I expect most football fans felt at least a twinge of guilt when they heard what happened to Seau. They should have, anyway. Even if football had nothing to do with his despair, we know too much about the sport he was great at to follow it with clueless delight.


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