Seau’s Suicide and Football’s Indoctrination of Violence

Note: Seau’s death is causing many to make opinions about the reasons for his suicide.  I am just one attempting to understand the possibly effects that massive brain trauma, concussions and violence have on retired football players.

Junior Seau

1969 – 2012

Suicide is a paradox.  It is, in my opinion, the penultimate act of an insidious mental disease but also can be seen as the ultimate act of cowardice.  On May 2, 2012, Junior Seau texted his children “I love you,” pointed a gun at his chest and pulled the trigger.  We will never know what mental and physical struggles Seau was wrestling with.  We can only speculate as to the cause of a despair so deep as it would force him to abandon his three children, family and friends by taking his own life.  But what comes from his death will resonate for decades not just in the NFL but at all levels of football, regardless of whether football’s brutal toll was responsible for Junior’s death or not.  Arguments about players assuming the risk are relevant and I am cognizant of the legal ramifications of such an argument.  This isn’t about the NFL’s defense toward a lawsuit, it’s about what is causing these former athletes to take their lives.

As Americans, football is our passion.  On Sundays in autumn, we are, as a people generally, involved with two events: Church and the NFL.  On Saturdays, we watch a few future NFL players on the college gridiron and on Friday nights, parents and families in neighborhoods across the country watch their sons play high school football.  At the youngest ages, children watch intently as eleven abnormally large men hurl themselves, often head-first, into eleven men moving at unbelievable speeds on the other side of the line.  Some of these young kids will begin playing Pop Warner football as early as age five.  Many of them will be enthralled with the running, passing and hitting, perhaps satisfying that male proclivity toward competition, fighting and destruction.  As with any industry or skill, the phenoms and prodigies will be identified early and groomed for a future in football.  Little do these children know that the skills they develop will be potentially dangerous, even deadly.

These young boys, short of adolescence by years, are indoctrinated into a scene of violence.  Football is pain, blood and filled with the prospects of great rewards with victory.  It is also a testosterone-filled event, times a billion.  Glory goes to those who survive and thrive.  These boys, who grow up to be monstrously-sized men, are used as weapons.  As a player rises through the ranks and hones his craft, he becomes a human being of amazingly destructive power.  If a young man is fortunate to become a professional football player, he has the capability of destroying the life and career of any man on that field.  His skill set is that dangerous.

Football is akin to war.  Football’s lexicon is replete with attack schemes, blitzes and battle lines.  The parallels are staggering though many will cringe at me using the analogy.  War is naturally the most dangerous circumstance in humanity’s arsenal of national self-preservation (and quite frankly, stupidity).  Football, being a game modeled after war, it isn’t hard to imagine the human cost.  War and football are “games” of attrition.  Casualties often determine the winner.  For centuries, we weren’t aware of the silent costs after peace was struck.  Now we know all too well.

With technology, we are now just learning about the silent killers.  As our brave soldiers in the Middle East are dying and suffering at the hands of massive brain trauma and PTSD, our football brethren are similarly being traumatized by multiple concussions and head wounds, leading to dementia, depression and death.  Be mindful also that legally-accepted acts of violence perpetrated by these men cannot be overlooked as a cause for their depression.  Nor can we ignore their transition from a life of violent aggression to one of regular citizen.  Football players, like our soldiers, are suffering from a form of PTSD.

For decades, nothing was known regarding brain trauma.  In fact, the evolution of football follows our knowledge that protecting the brain was incredibly importance.  Helmets, once non-existent in the game, evolve each season, helping to prevent concussive events.  Mouthpieces have changed.  Padding is different too.  The NFL has instituted massive penalties for head shots and its current punishments for the Bountygate scandal are blatantly obvious from a safety perspective.  Nothing can prevent all brain injuries.  Football introduces additional safeguards every season in exchange for a more acceptable level of violence but it will never be sufficient.  We will never eradicate concussions and brain trauma from the game.

As I said, football is the athletic, sports version of war.  These men leave our service at a young age and a vast majority of them are bankrupt financially and wounded emotionally.  They have no outlets to free themselves of the shackles of mental pain and anguish because they believe the machismo attitudes expressed in NFL locker rooms still apply.  These injuries are becoming an epidemic among NFL retirees and will shape the future of the sport, from the NFL all the way to Pop Warner.

Junior Seau is just the latest in a series of deaths and suicides of former NFL players.  He just happens to be the most well-known.  He is a future Hall of Famer and arguably one of the greatest linebackers of all-time.  His death will beg all sorts of questions, many of which I have outlined.  He may not have died as a result of football but the fact is, the lack of evidence makes the case against football all the more damning.  Assumptions will be made against the NFL.  The league may survive the court rooms but could be decimated by public opinion.

The National Football League must act now.  It must invest heavily in new helmet technologies, mouth guards and neck braces.  Concussive events must be dramatically decreased.  An 18-game season should be shelved indefinitely and not spoken of for years.  They must take pro-active steps to see that all its athletes, from superstars to journeymen players to undrafted washouts, effectively transition to regular civilian life after their careers are over.

The NFL unfairly bears the burden of being the last career stop for a football player.  Unfortunately for the League, they inherit the previous wear and tear these men have before they put on a NFL uniform.  But all these men aspired to be professional football players most of their lives and the NFL has a responsibility to them and the massive fanatic appeal this game has to an adoring nation to protect them as best they can.

If the National Football League, the NCAA and other football organizations are unable to protect football athletes and there is a steady rise in dementia, PTSD, depression and death, football will cease to be relevant.  Parents will find other outlets for their children’s athletic prowess that will not subject them to a future of mental disease, physical debilitation, emotional distress and untimely death.  Parents will slowly acknowledge that football isn’t worth the risk of fame and fortune for their boys and ask them to seek a glory without a helmet, pads and a pigskin.  Football could be reduced to a shell of its former violent self, unappealing and unpopular.  Perhaps there is no happy medium and football is either deadly or boring.  In that case, we Americans must decide what it is we want for our sons and for ourselves.

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