The tragic suicide of former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau last week cast a dark shadow across the National Football League. Seau's untimely death has once again brought the debate about the potential dangers of repeated head trauma and the long-term health of former players to the forefront, and it underscores how this issue has the National Football League headed into some troubled and uncharted waters.
Granted, there is no proof at this point that Seau's death was related to head trauma or that he had brain damage as a result of his 20-year career. Seau's family originally agreed to donate his brain for research but later expressed reservations.
KGTV-10 in San Diego reported Friday that Seau's brain was harvested during his autopsy, and while the family has made a decision regarding whether or not to allow it to be examined they are keeping that decision private.
That is absolutely their right, and as someone who lost his youngest brother just over a year ago (suddenly, at the much-too-young age of 32), I can say with 100 percent certainty that right now the Seau family is a lot less worried about the advancement of science than they are trying to cope with the unbearable grief of the unexpected loss of a loved one.
However, Seau's death is eerily similar to the suicide of former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson, who also shot himself in the chest in February of 2011. Duerson reportedly did so so that his brain could be studied by researchers, leaving a note that said, “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.”
Examination of Duerson's brain showed the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition brought on by repeated head injuries that can cause dementia, memory loss, aggression and depression.
Studies by Boston University's Center of Traumatic Encephalopathy of more than 20 deceased former NFL players showed the presence of the condition in several former players, from Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster to Duerson and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry.
Henry was only 26 years old at the time of his death in 2010, but even his relatively short professional career left his brain severely damaged, according to a report at the time by Peter Keating of ESPN.
"We would have been very happy if the results had been negative, but multiple areas of Chris Henry's brain showed CTE," said Julian Bailes, director of BIRI and chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia.
For its part, the National Football League has taken steps over the past few years to address the issue, cracking down on blows to the head, changing the rules regarding a player's return to action following a concussion and donating $1 million to BU's study.
That's far from enough in the eyes of some, as a number of lawsuits of been filed against the NFL and equipment managers by former players such as former Washington Redskins great Art Monk, who claim that the NFL didn't do enough to educate players about or protect them from these dangers in the past.
Past mistakes aside, the NFL at the very least appears to be taking the matter much more seriously now, but the question becomes what other steps can be taken to minimize these risks.
The easiest fix would seem to be improving equipment to lessen the impact the brain absorbs during games. There have been a number of technological advancements in this area in recent years, but many of those go for naught, as players are only required to wear a helmet that "meets the requirements the league has adopted from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment."
The league needs to take steps to make sure that all players are wearing the safest helmets possible by conducting independent research on the different brands available, deciding on a "winner" and making the use of that helmet mandatory.
However, financial considerations unfortunately enter into play here, as the NFL has a longstanding and lucrative relationship with Riddell, who is the league's "official" helmet supplier and is the brand of choice for approximately 75 percent of NFL players. Even NFL advisers agree that an open competition between manufacturers such as Riddell, Schutt, and Xenith would likley result in improvements that could make for safer headgear.
That sentiment is echoed by Kevin Guskiewicz, who chairs the Subcommittee on Safety Equipment and Playing Rules and told ESPN, "It should be based on research, not financial arrangements,"
Also, the NFL needs to make the wearing of mouthpieces mandatory, as some studies have shown that they reduce the risk of concussions. The league has claimed that further research is necessary before making mouthguard use mandatory, but why? Is wearing one going to hurt someone? No.
As I said earlier, the league has already taking steps to institute rule changes that they hope will minimize head trauma, from cracking down much harder on helmet-to-helmet hits to moving kickoffs back five yards, and more changes are undoubtedly coming in the near future.
However, the NFL has to walk a fine line of sorts here. Football is a wildly popular sport due in large part to the bone-jarring hits that have long been a staple of highlight reels. The unseemly fact is that fans may say they are gravely concerned about the safety of players, but many of those fans also want to watch those same players knock the crap out of each other every Sunday.
Like it or not, the NFL has to take into consideration whether watering down contact in the NFL will cause a drop in the popularity of the sport and in turn the all-important bottom line. If you don't think that's unfortunately the most important thing in many NFL owners' eyes, then you're kidding yourself.
Finally, it's very possible that the NFL could find itself in a crisis similar to Major League Baseball in a few years, as fewer and fewer kids take up the game, thinning the talent pool down the road. The crisis in baseball was borne of the increasing popularity of basketball and football and the lack of suitable playing fields in many inner cities.
In the NFL, however, it could be brought about as fewer parents allow their children to participate in a sport that could have serious long-term health implications. Even former NFL stars such as quarterback Kurt Warner have stated that they would have reservations about their children playing the game, and some current players such as Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard have flatly stated that they don't want their sons taking up the sport.
"I know what my body has been through," Pollard told Houston's SportsRadio 610 AM. "I'm 27 years old. I take care of myself, but it's a violent sport. I don't want him to have go through it. I don't want to see my son with a concussion."
Look I love the game of football, and I've long been a huge fan of the defensive side of the ball and the big hits that go with it. However, when players such as New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora state that "I know when I’m 45 there is a strong chance I'll be in a wheelchair.” something has to be done, because our enjoyment of a game isn't worth the life of even one young man.
The NFL is more popular than ever, but that popularity has come at a very high price. The bill appears to be coming due for those mistakes of the past, and America's most popular sport is staring at a very uncertain future as it tries to prevent repeating them.