It’s unclear why former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau shot himself in the chest last week. There’s no proof, yet, that Seau even suffered from trauma-induced brain damage, much less killed himself because of it. But it’s a good bet it was on his mind.
Why does a man choose to shoot himself in the chest instead of the head? Possibly to preserve evidence of the toll an NFL career takes on the brain. I believe Seau, who was just 43, wanted to deliver a final message, one that would force us to ask uncomfortable questions. And if that was his goal, he clearly succeeded.
Others in the media are holding the NFL accountable for its part in this tragedy. No need for me to pile on.
Instead, I want to pose another, even more uncomfortable question that has escaped much contemplation: How much responsibility does the football-loving public share in the physical devastation endured by players? We revel in highlight-tape hits, yet we know the object of our delight leads to life-destroying pain. Each time we applaud young men for knocking heads with reckless abandon, we’re possibly dooming them to early death, or a life so miserable they will be driven to end it by their own hand.
With everything we now know about how the body responds to the NFL workplace, continuing to support the league has become a question of morals. Ticket-buying, television-watching fans provide the fuel for the professional sports’ second-to-none money-making machine (the league generates about $9 billion annually in revenue).
Big-play excitement against a backdrop of controlled mayhem is what draws fans and keeps them coming back. Without that element of chaos, the NFL’s perch surely would not be so lofty. Although most of us may choose not to admit it, the violence is one of the league’s biggest lures. That’s what many of us crave.
In a sense, we’re like the ancient Romans. Essentially, NFL players are modern gladiators. In front of huge crowds, they fight each other for the public’s entertainment, at great peril to their health.
The object is basically the same as it was thousands of years ago: to physically dominate your opponent into submission. So are we no better than the bloodthirsty crowds that filled the Colosseum?
The Romans didn’t have the benefit of understanding the horrors of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, as it’s commonly known. The progressive degenerative disease, discovered in the brains of some deceased former NFL players, is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression and depression. Studies also have determined NFL players suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. Even top athletes can’t absorb what some physicians describe as low-impact car crashes on every play without it eventually taking a toll.