At the very least, Junior Seau’s death might be a watershed moment for the way the NFL helps players transition to the next phase of their lives.
At the very most, the tragic incident might be a watershed moment for the way the league’s coaches, players and — maybe most importantly — fans feel about the impact of head trauma on the game at all levels.
I know that Seau’s fans, friends, former teammates and family want to focus on mourning at this early stage, but the ramifications of a 12-time Pro Bowler and potential first-ballot Hall of Famer apparently shooting himself dead at 43 could be massive.
Take another future Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner, who told the Dan Patrick Show this morning that, at this point, the thought of his own sons playing football scares him.
“They both have the dream, like dad, to play in the NFL,” Warner said. “When you hear things like the bounty and when you understand the size, the speed, the violence of the game, and you couple that with Junior Seau and was that a [ramification] of all the years playing … it’s a scary thing for me.”
Warner, a man who made millions and gained legendary status playing football, said that he’d prefer his kids not play the game.
How sad is that?
But more importantly, how many American parents will follow? Considering the fate of men like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau — both of whom are only the defining examples of the potential downfalls of playing a sport in which smashing heads is part and parcel — I’d have to imagine that the NFL fears a crisis at the grassroots level, which in less than a generation could lead to a seemingly infallible pro sports league losing its luster from a variety of standpoints (marketability, depth of talent pool, TV viewership, you name it).
Commissioner Roger Goodell and his cohorts clearly understand this, which is why we continue to see an emphasis on avoiding violent collisions and is why we saw such harsh punishments handed down for the bounty scandal in New Orleans. The league is attempting to adapt to new information regarding neurodegenerative diseases linked to concussions. Researchers at Boston University concluded that Duerson was afflicted with such diseases, and they’ve requested a chance to study Seau’s brain.
You’d think Duerson’s suicide would have been enough to inflict a change in mentality among the still large segment of coaches, players and fans who are handcuffed to an archaic and flawed belief that increased measures to protect players from themselves aren’t necessary. The sudden death of Seau, who was young enough to have known a lot of current players, might hit home with more force, and might help to change neanderthalic mentalities.
And even if it’s concluded that Seau’s death had no connection to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that helped take Duerson’s life, it had better force the NFL to look more closely at the way in which it helps players transition from superstar to retiree. There were clear signs that Seau was struggling with that transition. He retired in 2006, calling it a “graduation,” but then he was back four days later. He couldn’t walk away. And when he finally retired for good in 2010, he found trouble with a domestic violence incident and a bizarre car accident in less than a year.
And then there was Wednesday morning.
It goes beyond Seau and Duerson. Former Falcon Ray Easterling, a lead plaintiff in a class-action concussion lawsuit against the league, took his own life in April. Former Eagle Andre Waters and former Steeler Terry Long ended their lives under similar circumstances.
The new collective bargaining agreement earmarked about $1 billion for retired players, but the group that fought for that money still isn’t satisfied. Maybe they have a case.
“Obviously we’ve heard more recently about the idea of depression from NFL players,” Warner told Patrick. “Knowing the kind of person he is and then thinking about — did it have something to do with his playing days and what happens to a lot of players once they leave the game?”
Most professional football players are larger than life from their teenage years on. They’re publicly celebrated; they’re adored by little boys and envied by grown men. They’re rich. They’re famous. And then, in what’s supposed to be the middle of their lives, they’re spit out of the game and left with nothing except maybe the money and the bruises.
It’s no wonder so many of them struggle to adapt. But with Seau serving as a beacon, more help could be coming.