Will Junior Seau be football’s Dale Earnhardt?

3 May

That cannot be right. Maybe it is a mistake. Maybe it is not true.

Those denials ran through my mind when I first saw the news about Junior Seau – one of the NFL’s greatest players, one of its most beloved people, father of three, dead at 43 from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

The details are hazy as of now, but the prevailing theory is that Seau committed suicide. The circumstances of his death look alarmingly similar to the suicide of 50-year-old former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied for signs of CTE, a degenerative disease found in the brains of people with a history of repeated brain trauma, including concussions and hits to the head in general. Even now, if you Google “Dave Duerson death,” half the results that appear are stories about the similarities between his suicide and the death of Seau.

Obviously there could be other issues at play here, but studies have established that repeated hits to the head can cause problems later in life – most notably depression and dementia. Really, that is not surprising. Getting hit in the head dozens of times affects the brain’s ability to function properly. That does not seem like a big leap to me. Still, it is far from certain Seau’s extensive NFL career is the reason this tragedy occurred … but it would be remiss to ignore that possibility.

Players have resisted the new safety rules of the NFL, but Seau’s death might make players consider those restrictions in a new light. In NASCAR it took the death of the sport’s biggest star to finally get everyone to implement the regulations that enhanced the safety of the sport. Will Junior Seau’s death make a lasting impact on the NFL in the same way the death of Dale Earnhardt impacted NASCAR?

The difficult part of this discussion is that football is an inherently dangerous sport, so it is impossible to legislate away all the risk. It is a crazy game, really. As odd as it is for me to say – because I enjoy football immensely and have for many years – I cannot imagine why parents let their kids play this violent sport.

Is it even possible to make the game of football “safe enough” to rule out the risk of ending up with one of these life-altering conditions at just 40 or 50 years of age?

As a society, maybe we need to take a long, hard look at what we consider entertainment. Again, I love football, so I am conflicted about this as much as many others. Yes, players sign up to play professional football. Yes, they are compensated generously. Is it worth a shortened lifespan and lower quality of life? Even if it is worth it to the individual, should we endorse such a sacrifice by watching games on TV and paying for tickets?

I don’t know.

All I know is the interview done with Seau’s mother – sobbing, hysterical, completely lost in grief and confusion – will haunt me for a long time, and I do not want anyone else’s mother to go through that heart-wrenching sadness because her son suffered from a condition that might have been prevented.

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