On February 17, 2011, former NFL defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest at his Florida home. Two days ago, on May 2, Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest at his California home. Prior to his death, Duerson requested that his brain be studied at Boston University for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Seau’s brain hasn’t been studied. Yet. But it will be. And if – or rather, when – it is revealed that he suffered from the effects of CTE, the NFL is going to have a conundrum on its hands.
In the wake of Seau’s suicide, there have been many debates over whether the players or the NFL is to blame for this. Here’s the answer: they both are. Players consent to participating in a violent sport. They are the ones who lay down the hits that cause CTE, they are the ones who play through injuries to their heads and bodies against common sense, and – let’s be frank – they use performance enhancing drugs that contribute to the severity of the impacts they deliver and receive. For their actions, players are rendered crippled in their bodies and their minds.
But the NFL is also culpable. It profits from the damage done to players. It encourages a hazardous work environment simply by condoning the actions that are fundamental to the sport. It did not deign to seriously investigate the consequences of head trauma, educate the players, or to truly acknowledge the effects of it, until the past few years. Sure, you could argue that the recent suspensions of New Orleans Saints players and coaches in the wake of the “bounty” scandal are a sign the NFL is cracking down on violence. Just like OJ was looking oh so hard to find the “real killers.” Please, the NFL is built on a foundation of violence. These punishments are the equivalent of applying a band-aid to someone who’s had their leg ripped off by a rabid wolverine.
Let’s assume that CTE contributed to Seau’s suicide. (We’re not really going out on a limb here.) What does this mean? Where should the NFL, the players, and the fans go from here? It’s very hard to say. The players can’t really do much. If they don’t play as hard, they’ll get cut. If they don’t play through pain, they lose their jobs. They won’t be able to make a living – admittedly, a living they chose to make. What about the fans? The fans can choose to stop watching a sport that contributes to the mental and physical degradation of its participants, but let’s be real: they won’t.
That leaves the NFL. The NFL is a party to this violence, and – fiscally speaking – benefits much more from it than the players do. Therefore, they ought to contribute to a solution to the problem, or at least assist in marginalizing the effects. I say that because, frankly, there is no way to fix this. CTE is not caused by heavy, helmet-to-helmet hits or concussions; it’s caused from multiple blows to the head sustained over a long period of time. In other words, it’s caused by playing football. If you want to get rid of CTE in football, you want to get rid of football. It’s that simple.
But that won’t happen. And I’m not sure it should. Because when it comes down to it, the violence in the NFL is between consenting adults, who are compensated for their actions. But the NFL is morally obligated to its employees to go another step; players ought to be insured by or through the NFL for the inherent potential of CTE caused by playing football. Just as the NFL reaps the benefits of the actions that cause CTE, so must they be equally responsible for the consequences. And if the NFL can’t find a way to cover the players for this? Then don’t expect this to end well for anyone involved.