The death of former San Diego Chargers player Junior Seau is a horrific story on many levels, but it is most alarming because it is a part of a more vast tableau, one that leads back to the source and catalyst: the National Football League.
I am not blaming the NFL in this death. It is not as if the league took the gun, put it in Seau’s hand, and helped him pull the trigger; however, there has to be growing concern about this worrisome pattern of former NFL stars (Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling for example) dying by their own hand.
Also, in light of the New Orleans bounty scandal (in which players received financial incentives to hurt opposing players), there has to be a spotlight on what the NFL has done and what it will do to protect its players during and after their careers.
American football is the most lucrative sport in the world. It has eclipsed all other sports, and in the United States one of the most watched TV programs is the Super Bowl. Absolutely nothing – baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer, etc. – comes close to the revenue generated, the fervor of the fan base, and the excitement created by the 16-game season and playoffs.
That said, this is also the most dangerous of all sports, where a player can become paralyzed or die in an instant. Think of Darryl Stingley as one of the most powerful examples of what can go wrong in this sport.
So the most lucrative and most dangerous sport in the world should also have a league that sets an example and makes the field as safe as possible for its players. This is like trying to make a soldier on the battlefield safe, to be sure, but you would not send out a rookie soldier without any training or protection and put him in the middle of a combat zone.
Yes, comissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL have taken a strong stand in the New Orleans case. Penalties notwithstanding, more needs to be done to make sure something like the bounty scandal never happens again and to protect players from unnecessary injuries.
Of course, Seau played a long and illustrious career. Few NFL players can make it for 20 seasons as he did, but you must wonder about the toll all those years took, the hits that he sustained, the damage that was done. When a fighter gets hit too many times they say he becomes punch drunk. Well, what about the number of times Seau must have gotten hit? Though known as an “iron man” and compared to baseball’s Lou Gehrig for his stamina and longevity, it must not be underestimated how devastating 20 years on the field in the NFL must have been to his body, especially his head. Though he suffered no known official concussions (his ex-wife, however, claims that he did), how many he did have we can never be sure, but he must have had at least one during that time.
Once an NFL football career is over, it has to be a major depressor. Though Seau opened a restaurant and probably could have had many avenues to go down, it appears that the end of his playing days took a toll. To make a strange connection, Joe Paterno stopped coaching and was dead only weeks later. Yes, the man was old and sick, but the loss he suffered was irreparable. The game becomes the life; the life is the game. Trying to take on life afterwards must appear monumentally difficult and, at times, so depressing there seems to be nothing else that matters.
I am sure more will come out over the days and weeks ahead about Junior Seau’s situation. He was so well loved in San Diego, perhaps as loved as any player could be. The crowds gathering outside his house there are testimony to that. But just as in the famous poem “Richard Cory,” we have no idea of his troubles, no inkling of his demons, so despite seemingly having it all, Seau ended things as did Cory, leaving the rest of us shattered and dumbfounded.
Junior Seau was a great player, destined for the Hall of Fame. He is dead by his own hand, but the NFL must be held complicit in that it needs to do more. What can be put in place for retired players? What options can there be for them considering their usually short careers (Seau’s 20 years being an anomaly)? It is definitely a Titanic moment for football. After the great ship sank, sufficient lifeboats were placed on all ocean liners. Now it’s the NFL’s turn to provide its own life-saving process for former players. Hurry up, Mr. Goodell, “iceberg dead ahead!”