Scrambled Brains: Did Football Kill Junior Seau?

Was Junior Seau’s suicide linked to head trauma he suffered while playing football?

A team of pathologists who did not know whose brain tissue they were examining came to the unanimous conclusion that Junior Seau suffered a debilitating brain disease that is caused by repeated trauma to the head.

Professional football players have filed suit against the NFL for withholding information from them about the dangers of brain trauma that go with their sport. They are also alleging that the NFL not only didn’t give them full information about the risks, it gave them inaccurate information that minimized the potential dangers.

In truth, I doubt if many young men would be persuaded by accurate information if it was given to them. Young people have a distorted sense of their own invulnerability. They think that bad things are going to happen to the other person. I would imagine that the sort of young man who ends up with an offer to play professional football would be turned this way even more than most young people.

Most of them have built their lives around this one thing since they were boys. They have become inured to nonsense like “you’ve got to know the difference between pain and injury” as a mantra for living their lives. They’ve been marinating in a frothy broth of unearned adulation and unwarranted abuse, along with extreme team allegiance, since they were children.

Add to that the fact that most of them grew up poor and they are finally going to see a really big pay day after years of enriching everybody else while they played college ball, and you’ve got a powerful set of incentives to sign on the line and ignore the risks.

So, would informed consent actually make players less likely to put their cognition at risk? I doubt it.

What might make a difference is rule changes within the leagues to limit some of these damaging hits. I know that I’m talking about the holy grail here. I am surrounded by football watching men at my house. The smashing sound of helmets crashing into one another is part of the excitement of the sport.

But I ask you, would it be as entertaining if you knew — knew — that these sounds signified that the people you were watching were injuring their brains in such a way that they would lose decades of useful living?

One reason I’m not too crazy about football is that I’ve always known that these hits were doing permanent injury to these men’s brains. I’m not a scientist. But I read.

Football players may be tough, but their brains are the same delicate toothpaste as yours and mine. Running full tilt and headfirst into a 250 lb human behemoth who is running headfirst and full tilt straight at you can give you quite a lick. It jostles, swishes and pounds the brains of both players.

These men take these hits for years, sometimes decades, beginning with most of them when they are adolescents. Each hit piles damage on top of previous damage until it becomes a syndrome that progresses on its own.

What is life worth?

More to the point, what are other people’s lives worth?

The young men who sign these contracts are conditioned by training and temperament to take stupid risks with themselves. But it doesn’t track that we should find watching them damage themselves entertaining.

I don’t believe that we we do. I don’t believe that’s why people watch football at all.

Football is high drama. It’s got intensity, violence, struggle and skill all wrapped up in one package. In a good game, you don’t know how it’s going to come down until the last second on the clock expires. I think that the dramatic quality is what keeps people wrapped up in these games, not the sound of men bashing their heads against one another. The drama of football is why people spend their weekends fixated on their televisions, watching the play. I don’t think they watch to see people damaged for life.

We invest ourselves emotionally in these teams. We enjoy rehashing the plays at work the next day. We also enjoy taking vicarious pleasure in the brute force that the men who play can bring to bear. These guys exhibit the height of male physicality and power. They are examples of what testosterone can do.

Football is a blood sport. But it’s not a death sport. Nobody has to die for our entertainment. Not on the field and not ten years later of a suicide due to the traumatized and diseased brain of an athlete whose walk off the field was cut short by what the play did to him.

When people lose their cognitive abilities at young ages, when they stumble and slur their words and don’t recognize their children, the price of our entertainment is too high. It’s not a question of whether young men are wise enough not to sign. It’s a question of whether or not we are responsible enough not to watch.

I’m not suggesting that you give up football. What I am suggesting is that you write the NFL and let them know that player safety has to be part of the sport for it to be a sport.

Big money is the fuel that powers this engine, and that big money comes from all of us, sitting on our sofas and providing the audiences. We have the power. Let’s use it.

You can write the NFL here.


This is a link to a YouTube video of an ABC News report about this issue and an excerpt of an NBC News article about it.

By  (@JimAvilaABC) , LAUREN PEARLE and  (@GoldmanRussell)

Jan. 10, 2013

A team of scientists who analyzed the brain tissue of renowned NFL linebacker Junior Seau after his suicide last year have concluded the football player suffered a debilitating brain disease likely caused by two decades worth of hits to the head, researchers and his family exclusively told ABC News and ESPN.

In May, Seau, 43 — football’s monster in the middle, a perennial all-star and defensive icon in the 1990s whose passionate hits made him a dominant figure in the NFL — shot himself in the chest at his home in Oceanside, Calif., leaving behind four children and many unanswered questions.

Seau’s family donated his brain to neuroscientists at the National Institutes for Health who are conducting ongoing research on traumatic brain injury and football players.

A team of independent researchers who did not know they were studying Seau’s brain all concluded he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease typically caused by multiple hits to the head.

“What was found in Junior Seau’s brain was cellular changes consistent with CTE,” said Dr. Russell Lonser, chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Ohio State University, who led the study of Seau’s brain while he was at NIH.

Patients with CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death, display symptoms “such as impulsivity, forgetfulness, depression, [and] sometimes suicidal ideation,” Lonser said.
(Read more here.)

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