Junior Seau's death has brought to light a litany of skeletons from the NFL's deep and cavernous closet. The event was a culmination of a tumultuous 15 months for retired NFL athletes. During this period, three former players—the other two being Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson—have been found dead, in their residences, with a handgun by their side.
Though few are willing to admit it, there is a serious and legitimate connection between these deaths and the injuries players sustain on the field. I am breaking no barriers by saying this; it's been said time and time again, by those closer and more attached to the game than I.
But there is no harm in saying it again: Roger Goodell and the rest of the league have reached a crossroads. Science and medicine have finally caught up with a league notorious for neglecting its input. The "play through anything" mentality of the past must, somehow, be traded in for a "safety above all" mentality for the future.
A few months ago, former defensive end Trevor Pryce wrote a telling column for the New York Times sports section. His predicament was a unique one: After years of being in the limelight, given a daily schedule, being expected to work hard all day, every day, he was finally given the freedom to do what he wanted. And he couldn't handle it.
Letting go of the game has been documented by many as the hardest part of playing in the NFL, mostly because it's not the player's decision to make—when the league decides someone is no longer of value to it, that player is done.
The intense psychological stress that results, joined with the long-lasting effects of severe head trauma common in the NFL, is a dangerous combination. In a stunning Sports Illustrated article from 2009, it was reported that within two years of retirement, 78 percent of NFL players are either bankrupt or in "severe financial trouble."
That part of the game gets little-to-no attention. And in some ways, it's despicable that the league hasn't done more to fix that. But mostly, the situation football is in right now can only be described as a product of two things: the desire of its audience and the will of its participants. Both sides are content with the status quo, and as long as that remains the case, there is little impetus for action.
A well-respected writer and editor from The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, reacted to Seau's death by making a call for people to stop watching football. I admired Coates' writing, but I believe that reaction is much too harsh.
Football is, by its very nature, barbaric. There is nothing that can be done to change that. But the task at hand is to make that barbarism as safe as possible. That sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but that's why the NFL has taken so long to do something about it.
The stiff penalties levied against the Saints will help, sure, and there is no question that this was a punishment made to set a precedent. But there is still plenty to be done.
What's unfortunate is that it took the tragic death of a figure as large and looming as Seau to finally make this an issue worth considering. In some ways, it's a blessing in disguise for Goodell, who now has the perfect opportunity to enact real reform for his league. For the good of the game, I hope he seizes it.
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