When former star NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide last year, the speculation was almost immediate that surely, 20 seasons’ worth of NFL hits had left him with the same degenerative brain condition as former Bear Dave Duerson (and several other NFL players), who killed himself in 2011. While it was natural to wonder, though, it was also unsubstantiated until Seau’s brain was examined – which it was, thanks to a donation of brain tissue from Seau’s family to the National Institutes of Health.
This morning, the results of that study were revealed, and the conclusion was sadly predictable: Seau’s brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same disease found in Duerson and dozens of other former NFLers whose brains have been studied. According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE is associated “with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head,” making NFL players natural targets. And the symptoms Seau suffered fell right in line with the effects of CTE. Here’s what his son, Tyler, said about the diagnosis:
”I was not surprised after learning a little about CTE that he had it. He did play so many years at that level. I was more just kind of angry I didn’t do something more and have the awareness to help him more, and now it is too late.
”I don’t think any of us were aware of the side effects that could be going on with head trauma until he passed away. We didn’t know his behavior was from head trauma.”
That behavior, according to Tyler Seau and Junior’s ex-wife Gina, included wild mood swings, irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression.
”He emotionally detached himself and would kind of `go away’ for a little bit,” Tyler Seau said. ”And then the depression and things like that. It started to progressively get worse.”
Additional reaction from Seau’s family can be seen here. As stories like Seau’s become more and more commonplace, the key question remains: what does the NFL do from here? The league released this statement on Seau:
”We appreciate the Seau family’s cooperation with the National Institutes of Health. The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE.
”The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels.”
The problem with all this, of course, is that football itself is the underlying issue. Football involves lots of hitting, and lots of hitting is exactly what leads to CTE. Fully dealing with the CTE problem would mean fundamental changes to football – changes that damn sure aren’t coming as long as the NFL rakes in money hand over fist and remains the most popular league in America.
The Seau news is a jolt – but so was the Duerson news. Unlike the effects of, say, CTE, the effects of that jolt wore off, and we all went back to watching football. That will happen again. How many more Seaus will there be before we can’t shrug these deaths off as the cost of doing business anymore?
Getty photo, by Donald Miralle