At last evening’s showing of the new play Headstrong, presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre on Manhattan’s West 52nd street, you could sense that the audience and the actors had one man specifically on their minds: Junior Seau.
In the hours before the performance, the sports world (and the medical world) received word that the former All-Pro linebacker had died from a gunshot wound to his chest, a presumed suicide similar in nature to former player Dave Duerson’s last year. Young writer Patrick Link couldn’t have anticipated how much this play, a product of The EST/Sloan Project, would resonate with audience members. Indeed, Seau’s death cast a dark shadow on the proceedings, driving home just how troubled and damaged ex-pros are in their retirement years.
The play centers on Duncan Troy (played by Ron Canada), a former pro who has some minor injuries and major pride in his accomplishments on the field. When a researcher, based on Christopher Nowinski, arrived at Troy’s house to find out if he can study the brain of Troy’s recently deceased ex-Pro Bowler son-in-law, Troy derides him for wanting to “ruin” the game through advocating for player safety. These issues are all too real for many players, young and old, as more medical research is coming out tying concussions to dementia and depression.
After the show, neuropsychologist Dr. Jill Brooks and ESPN: The Magazine writer Peter Keating addressed some of the play’s key issues with the help of Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health. Canada joined the trio midway through with some thoughts on what the NFL can do to help players.
But what was clear was that none of them consider this concussion problem to be only the NFL’s problem.
Other leagues are worrying about the same concerns, and many young children and women are feeling the effects of head injuries, said Dr. Brooks. It’s time to “change a culture,” she said, and to reform how sports are played to cut down on the brutality and ferocity.
Keating noted that the NFL for many years was in denial about the concussion issue, and even promoted studies that it had commissioned showing that there’s nothing to fear in the post-playing days. They were “studies that were almost set up to find nothing,” said Keating. However, that’s since changed. Keating pointed to increased awareness and knowledge as important factors in changing the conversation. Unfortunately, there have also been several high-profile examples of players who have committed suicide in recent years. As the NFL has shifted its stance and acknowledged there’s a real problem here, the topic has gained strength among medical professionals looking for a cure, Keating said. We have to accept that the regulation and focus on prevention, Oransky added, is a step in the right direction.
Several members of the audience shared their personal struggles with traumatic brain injuries or the stories of loved ones who now face a lifetime of longterm effects from their time involved with amateur sports. And people need to know what they’re getting into before they sign up. Canada summed up the night well when he said, “You name the sport, concussions can occur.”