Junior Seau’s death at 43, from an apparent suicide, has provided a household name for those who claim the NFL needs to change. Their argument is that the league is to blame for the players who suffer so many brain injuries. The problem with their argument is that it’s not the league’s fault, it’s the players who do it to themselves.
Football is a violent sport. Players are constantly hurt and there are TV timeouts for injuries multiple times per game. Every type of injury, from a jammed finger, to paralysis, and everything in between, has happened on the football field at all levels of competitive organized play. Yet people only want to point the finger at the NFL.
For the sake of argument, let’s whittle our focus down to concussions. In 2011, there were 171 concussions/head injuries in the NFL, according to the website Concussion Blog. That is 12 more than the previous season, despite numerous efforts from the NFL to lessen the severity of head injuries to its players.
Only two teams, the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans, had no incidence of concussion all season; though the Texans starting and backup quarterbacks did miss the majority of the season due to a fractured right foot and an injured collarbone, respectively.
The NCAA, for the sake of comparison, reported 177 concussions during the 2011 college football season according to the Concussion Blog. Since the NCAA has far more teams than the 32 team NFL does, that actually works out to a lower rate of concussions than in the pro games.
Concussions go far back into the lore of the NFL. When the great Frank Gifford retired in 1960, after Chuck Bednarik’s vicious tackle gave him a concussion; he was only 30. Gifford eventually came back 18 months later, but was never the same and didn’t even play the same position. The hit was clean, shoulder first, and still almost paralyzed him. Gifford told the New York Times that he found out a vertebra in his neck had fractured and healed on its own. He didn't find out until he was told by a doctor over 40 years later.
In 1995, former New York Jets slot receiver Al Toon told the LA Times he had “more than five and probably less than 20” concussions in his eight year NFL career. He couldn't remember all of them. Suicide crossed his mind, not the act itself he says, but “life was very frustrating.” His son Nick was just drafted by the New Orleans Saints to play wide receiver.
Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young had seven diagnosed concussions in his career, (four in his last three seasons,) before he retired in 2000 after being knocked out of his last game with - you guessed it – a concussion. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman sustained 10 concussions in his career, four in his last two seasons, before retiring in 2001 after only 12 seasons.
Junior Seau was never diagnosed with a concussion, but was said to have told those close to him that he experienced “multiple head injuries” in his career, says ESPN. Seau being a football player and dying of suicide, made people immediately jump on the suicide-by-concussion bandwagon.
Why all this talk about players that aren't Seau when talking about his suicide? The answer is simple. No matter what rules, fines, or suspensions the league makes, there will be head injuries and concussions. Players like James Harrison of the Steelers care more about injuring players than playing the game cleanly.
Harrison's cavalier attitude about how he routinely injures other players is what is wrong with football. The macho culture of the league is to hurt others - Saints bounty program anyone? - and then lie about one's own injuries to avoid losing your spot in the rotation, since contracts are usually not guaranteed.
Seau never told anyone about his head injuries or that he needed help. Had he, the network of support and care he would have received would have rivaled any in the world.
Concussions have long been a part of the NFL. There isn’t much that can be done about them unless the game is abolished altogether. Since we all know that isn’t going to happen, the next best thing to do would be to teach children playing the game the right way to tackle from pee-wee football, all the way through to high school, and college, so they aren’t head hunting in the NFL.
Instead of pointing fingers at the league, point them at the players. They are the ones who hurt each other, who lie about their health and injuries, and who laugh at fines larger than what most of us make in a year. Junior Seau's death is an absolute tragedy, but no one made him mislead trainers and medical staff about the head injuries he sustained during his career.
Ryan's work has been featured in the NY Daily News, Gothamist and the Wall Street Letter. His work has been cited by both the Colbert Report and Time Magazine's website. Ryan worked on Wall Street for five years before returning to school to finish a degree in journalism at St. John's University.