One of the best weekends on the annual football schedule was darkened in its run-up when news came Thursday that tests on Junior Seau’s brain showed the great former linebacker, who committed suicide in May, suffered from chronic brain damage, the same condition that has been found in other deceased former players.
What does that mean?
Among other things, it means the NFL has a major problem. It means football has a major problem.
If a fundamental part of a game, a business, includes repeated violent collisions among hundreds and thousands of participants, and those collisions could lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that includes symptoms such as memory loss, depression and dementia, what then is the game’s responsibility to those who have suffered? What does it mean for future participation rates, if moms and dads around the country know that football could put their kids at risk — beyond what they previously considered?
Not everyone who plays the game is afflicted by CTE, but there already are lawsuits against the NFL by nearly 4,000 former players — some of them Hall of Famers — who claim the league withheld information on the dangerous effects of concussions. Researchers at Boston University last month found CTE in 50 former football players, 33 of whom had played in the NFL.
The league responded to the news about Seau by releasing a statement:
“The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the [National Institutes of Health], 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 NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”
Whether that new commitment is prompted out of concern for the best interests of its players or by potential financial damages from legal action that could far exceed the aforementioned investment, make your own guess. But at its core, the game, at every level, puts players in harm’s way.
“Football’s not ever going to go away,” said Angela Eastvold, a clinical neuropsychologist in the University of Utah’s Division of Cognitive Neurology. “But there might be changes made to the game. More awareness. The NFL has known about this for a long time. Now they’re being more open about it. It’s not new information. If we’re lucky, there will be changes to the game and less social acceptance for knocking another player out, or hitting him in the head.”
The NFL has made rule changes about head-to-head hits, and teams have new protocols in place concerning concussions. But Seau supposedly never suffered a concussion in his 20 years in the league, an alleged fact that is more likely to have been fiction. Seau’s former teammate Fred McCrary, a fullback, told Sports Illustrated about a play in training camp one year in which McCrary and Seau crashed into one another:
“Me and Junior had so much pride, we didn’t want to tell the other one that we were hurt. We talked about the play later that night, and I said, ‘Junior, my head is on fire!’ He was like, ‘Buddddyyyy, my head was killing me! But I wasn’t going to let [trainer James Collins] know because he would make me sit out.’
“After that, I remember blacking out, seeing white all the time that year. I’m like, ‘What the f---?’ I didn’t know why it was happening. It was scary. I remember lying down that night and I said, ‘I’ve got to call James.’ My head was beating like a drum. You didn’t want to come out because you’re trying to keep your job, but I remember I used to hit someone and fall to my knees.
“I look back on it now and I can say that that hit was the reason why I was in that condition. But, at the time, all I kept thinking was, ‘What’s wrong with my head?’ My wife would tell me I need to go get checked out and stop playing, but I kept saying, ‘I’ll be all right. I don’t want to sit out. I don’t want to lose my job. I’m a starter now.’ All that stuff goes through your head. Any football player you ask will tell you the same thing.
“I saw Junior messed up multiple times. He would just go back to his room and say, ‘Buddy, what the f---?’ When we had that collision, he’d walk around and say, ‘We’ll be OK. We’ll be OK.’ People need to realize, that stuff is so real.”
Nothing is going to completely change those sentiments. Players want to play because they don’t want to lose their positions. Football is a macho world where injury is weakness and weakness is the worst thing a player can show.
“Education is how we try to tackle [machismo],” Eastvold said, adding that studies reveal that efforts to change the mindsets of coaches and players at all levels is having a positive impact. That still didn’t help Alex Smith earlier this season when a concussion benched the 49er quarterback, and he subsequently was demoted to second string.
Eastvold, who also works with Real Salt Lake’s medical team, said more research about brain trauma is needed, that it affects sports far beyond football. But when it comes to the brain being bruised, football is front and center.
Big hits that once were celebrated — and still are, see Jadeveon Clowney’s on Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl — are now, at least among some, less highlights and more causes for concern.
Prediction: Despite its popularity, football will look different five years from now than it does today.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.