Seau's Death Reveals Hard Truth About Football

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A suicide is a tragedy. The suicide of a young man, a father, a son, leaves devastation behind. 

Those who loved him cannot help but wonder if there was something they could have done, some way they could have shown him that life is worth living.

The decision to end one’s life is the most basic and personal decision possible. Whatever our circumstances, whatever our accomplishments or disappointments, there is one thing we all share: We are alive, until we are not.

I don’t know why Junior Seau would take his own life, if indeed he did. Whatever personal judgments or failings or problems he felt were too big to face are just that – personal. I did not know him, I did not love him; his reasons are not important to me.

What is important is the ease of our assumptions.

How long did it take you, upon hearing about Seau, to think of the cumulative brain damage known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)? Two seconds? One?

How long to think of Dave Duerson turning a gun on himself and shooting for the heart to preserve his brain for scientific study? Or Ray Easterling just two weeks ago, another self-inflicted bullet to the chest from a former NFL player with progressing dementia?

Junior Seau’s choice may have had nothing to do with repeated concussive impacts over the course of a long life in football. It may have come from an inability to adjust to living without the weekly rush of adrenaline the game provided. It may reflect family issues, or financial problems, or simply a sense that life offers nothing to compare to the highs he’s already known.

There have already been erratic incidents in his life that reflect potential instability. He signed a one-day contract with San Diego in 2006 so that he could retire as a Charger, then agreed to join the New England Patriots four days later, playing an additional four years. He was arrested after his live-in girlfriend alleged domestic violence in October 2010, and later that day his SUV went off a beachside cliff while he was driving.

Brain chemistry - in the form of tau proteins indicating trauma-induced injury that can cause depression, personality changes, impaired judgment and impulse control problems – may have had nothing to do with it.

But that would be a surprise.

And the fact that it would be a surprise tells us something important.

We know that football is a violent, dangerous game. It wouldn’t be so thrilling otherwise. 

We’ve known for a long time the toll it takes on bones, joints, muscles, tendons, cartilage; the pain it causes long after players have left the field for good. 

And the speed of our leap to a conclusion means we know, whether we want to or not, that the presence of CTE is a logical assumption in anyone who has played football for an extended time.

The league has to be worried about the consequences of this growing understanding. It’s one thing to ask players to ignore risks to the body; football players pride themselves in their ability to overcome pain.

It’s quite another to knowingly expect players to set aside reservations about damage to the brain.

Everything about football on the professional level has to change. Practice regimens, equipment, technique, training, player awareness – all must be altered to reflect our growing understanding of the neurological results of participation.

If I had a son who wanted to play football, I’d suggest he take up something less dangerous. Like drugs.

After all, there is more scientific evidence for the damage caused by football than there is for steroids or marijuana. 

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.
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