Junior Seau and the NFL's Big Problem

I have written fairly extensively (just put 'NFL' into the search box above, left) about the legal and image problems the NFL is facing with regards to concussions over the past few months. In particular, one of my recurring messages has been that America is a nation of hypocrites its citizens loudly bemoan things like Bounty-Gate while still spending a whole day of the week (plus Monday nights, and sometimes Thursdays, and even Saturdays late in the season) watching the NFL.

As brutal as the sport is, it takes some mental gymnastics to be opposed to someone being paid a few thousand dollars to knock an opponent out of a game but cheering wildly your team making a goal-line stand which happens to end with a player receiving a grade-2 concussion. In other words, while most would consider it silly for any self-proclaimed fan of the game to be upset over the latter, I believe that in that context the outrage over the former is equally as silly.

Of course, the contra to that reasoning becomes clear even when unspoken; that one could rightly be outraged about bounties if they are of the mind that the NFL is too brutal to begin with. In full disclosure, I don't come out on that side of the argument. Additionally, I believe that anyone in the NFL is there by choice, not mandate or fiat. However, it certainly strikes me as more genuine to say that football itself needs to change than to say that paying millionaires a few hundred extra dollars to do something they are being paid millions to do anyway is somehow morally outrageous. And, I believe that the NFL has been exhibiting signs of coming around to this line of thinking recently.

Maybe not by choice, but it certainly seems that the league is sending out signals about its desire for a new, more head-friendly environment. Bounty-Gate resulted in historic fines. Some of the league's toughest defenders pay more into NFL-backed charities monthly than most of their fans make in a year. More flags than ever are being thrown for what used to be legal hits. Many (including myself) have speculated that a lot of this has to do with painting a moral picture for the legal system in the wake of a massive number of former-player lawsuits in hopes of avoiding 'doomsday.' However, NFL Films still has biggest hits videos for sale, monster linebackers are still celebrated on draft day, and some of the biggest hitters in the league are among its most visible ambassadors. The fact is that most fans enjoy the more brutal elements of the game.

In light of this contradiction, the desire to make the game 'safe' while still revelling in its brutality, the NFL is in big trouble. The more the concussion issue becomes a part of the national conversation, the more likely it is that certain sponsors won't want to be associated with the NFL brand. The NFL's position in America is very steady right now, so maybe it won't be this year, maybe not the next. But as the conversation shifts toward the question of whether 300 pound men who can run faster than most of our readers slamming into each other dozens of times in a day is a good thing, it will happen. And the conversation has never drifted as far in that direction as it has in the wake of Junior Seau's death.

Long the best player on a San Diego Charger team which made the Super Bowl with him bossing the middle of the field, he was also a member of the Patriots squad which had its perfect season stopped by the New York Giants in 2007 before finally calling it quits after the 2009 season. In other words, in addition to being good, Seau only recently walked away from the game, a combination which, with no disrespect intended to anyone else involved in this issue, makes Seau the most high-profile former player who has taken his life in a cloud of concussion-related speculation.
Though it is not 100% clear if he intended this outcome when he took his life, Junior Seau's brain can be used for concussion research after his family consented to the idea late last week. Though I would like to avoid speculation, it is at least conceivable that such an outcome is why he shot himself in the chest rather than taking the more common approach. Such a theory is lent credence in the wake of former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson's similar death early last year. Duerson's self-inflicted wound was much the same, and he sent a text message to family members saying specifically that he wanted his brain donated to a unit at the Boston University School of Medicine which does extensive concussion-related research. For now, we can only guess that Seau intended his brain to go to research. However his family's consent indicates that those who were closest to him believe that concussions played a part in his death.

Though he is no doctor, ex-teammate Gary Plummer suggested that Seau could have experienced hundreds, even over 1,000 concussions during his career. Hopefully, if there is a silver lining in his death, it is that research on his brain can help provide some good. Maybe it will be helmets which better protect players. Maybe it will be an ability to diagnose, or provide better treatment for affected players in the future. Maybe then, some good will come from his passing. And, while these other outcomes are uncertain, there is one certainty in this situation; his death is bringing more attention to this issue, and the more it is seen as a problem by the public, the bigger problem the NFL will have.

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