This week, doctors analyzing the brain of the late NFL great Junior Seau, who committed suicide last May, announced that the former NFL linebacker showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This degenerative disease has been talked about at length recently due to its association with other football players who have gone on to experience mental health problems after retirement.
Dave Duerson, a safety for the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team, shocked the football world when he committed suicide two years ago as a result of what were later determined to be the effects of CTE. We don’t know the thoughts that either man had in the days and moments leading up to their suicides, but we know at least one thing they were aware of: both men killed themselves with gunshots to their hearts so as to preserve their brains for further study. They knew something was wrong with them.
Football is at a strange crossroads. It is the undisputed Great American Pastime, yet the sport has a dark side. In January of 2007, sportswriter Alan Schwarz first wrote an article discussing the role of concussions in the death of a retired football player. The suicide of former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters had capped a years-long struggle with depression. When his brain was examined, the neuropathologist reported to Schwarz that “Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s.”
After that, Schwarz wrote over 100 articles about the mysterious, but traceable, condition, shedding an uncomfortable light on the national obsession that resembled a blood sport the more that was published on it.
The league acted to address this bad publicity. Commissioner Roger Goodell, already known as an authoritarian figure in the murky tyranny that is the NFL, swept the league with endless rounds of rule changes. Goodell’s injunctions against intentional injuries — not just head shots, but other preventive measures such as the horse-collar rule — won him disrepute in locker rooms and living rooms nationally.
Players like Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who, if not for football would no doubt be injuring people in other ways, tweeted angrily in lament of his emasculated sport. The emphasis on player safety was seen as hypocritical considering the owners’ desire to expand the season by a week, thus increasing the risk of injury to already-battered bodies.
But now that we know what we surmised before about Junior Seau, by far the highest-profile victim of CTE to date, are the complaints against the “wussification” of football relevant anymore?
Roger Goodell’s efforts to make football safer have been heavy-handed and capricious, but football needs to change. I’m sure the vast majority of players understand that rules developed when offensive linemen were Tony Romo’s size cannot continue to apply to a league full of Suhs, Ngatas, and Mario Williamses without cataclysmic injury becoming commonplace. If the prospect of legal culpability is what’s compelling the commissioner to proactively prevent player injuries, as is often alleged…well, could there be a more ringing endorsement of the legal system? Or of the commissioner? If it is Goodell’s CYA instinct that allows little DeSean Jackson to live to see, and actually recognize his own grandchildren, then the system of accountability works.
The fans should have no problem adjusting to a changed sport. We’re always hearing that Americans love football for the violence. I personally disagree. To me, football is most entertaining as a skillful, gladiatorial chess match. Would you rather watch an overtime featuring all of the best players playing at a high level, or one in which they’re injury-hobbled and replaced by backups? This supposed bloodlust is a waste of talent. In light of CTE, the old headhunting ways of guys like Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert would be borderline immoral now.
Anyone moaning about rules enacted to avoid head trauma and other serious injury need to wonder how many Junior Seaus — and Darryl Stingleys — would have to accumulate before the hard-liners permit the game to change.
The game of football needs to change in order to avoid tragedy and later health problems. In the process we can still preserve what is most compelling about the sport. As long as they reform the game fairly and concretely, I commend the NFL for taking steps to achieve a new standard of safety, no matter what the motivation. Players should too. They will all be retired one day, and few of them will have the laurels or status that poor Junior Seau enjoyed.