Friday, August 29, 2014
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John Smallwood: Seau's suicide should be a wake-up call

Police say Junior Seau, a former NFL star, was found dead at his home in Oceanside, Calif., Wednesday. (Charles Krupa/AP file photo)
Police say Junior Seau, a former NFL star, was found dead at his home in Oceanside, Calif., Wednesday. (Charles Krupa/AP file photo)
Police say Junior Seau, a former NFL star, was found dead at his home in Oceanside, Calif., Wednesday. (Charles Krupa/AP file photo) Gallery: John Smallwood: Seau's suicide should be a wake-up call

I wasn’t surprised.

I knew when I scrolled to the comments section of the Philly.com story concerning the possible link between Wednesday’s suicide of NFL great Junior Seau and the issue concerning head injuries that a certain callous attitude would be represented.

Amid the comments expressing shock, sympathy and sadness was this gem from a poster called jdid610:

“Football is a dangerous game. They get paid millions of dollars to assume that risk. Hits are why people watch the game. If you cannot handle it get a REAL job!!!!!!”

I read similar articles at several newspapers and sports reporting sites and each had a least a couple of sentiments like the above.

Really? Come on, people, aren’t we supposed to be better than that?

I agree that there are inherent risks in playing such high-collision sports as football or hockey.

Still, millions of athletes knowingly make that Faustian bargain with their current and future health to chase the dream.

The threat of injury, even injury as serious as paralysis, is a part of the game.

To eliminate those risks would mean fundamentally changing the sports themselves.

That won’t happen. I don’t advocate that.

The violence is an attraction, and neither the owners nor the players will dilute things so much as to jeopardize the billions of dollars the NFL generates.

But we cannot casually brush off preventable death as “just part of the game.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this. In fact, my first column in SportsWeek articulated a similar theme.

I don’t believe there can be too much discussion about this — not when past athletes have died, current ones may be risking future death, and young athletes might be starting down a path that they have no idea could lead to an early death.

Aren’t we supposed to be the civilized animals, the ones blessed with minds that can reason?

We cannot become so desensitized that we dismiss the possible link between the brain traumas experienced during years of competing in an extremely physical contact sports and the string of tragedies we’ve witnessed.

I don’t know what inner demons tormented Seau. I have no idea whether Seau suffered the kind of brain damage former Eagle Andre Waters and former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson had when they committed suicide.

Doctors caution that a definitive link between brain damage and suicide has not been established. And while studies have shown a link between brain injuries and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to impaired judgment, depression and dementia, it has not been acknowledged as a known cause for suicide.

Is that the standard we want to go by with something as potentially fatal as this?

So just because we don’t have 100 percent, concrete evidence, we just move along with the status quo and act as if everything is all right.

Everything is not all right. Something is happening.

Seau killed himself at 43.

Waters was 44. Duerson was 50. Former Steeler Terry Long was 45 when he killed himself by drinking antifreeze.

All were diagnosed with some form of brain damage.

These players dedicated 60 to 70 percent of their lives to a sport that required physical trauma the human body was not meant to endure.

How could there not be some sort of a tragic bill to pay somewhere down the road?

How many high school, college or professional football tragedies are unknown to us because we weren’t studying the affect of constant trauma to the brain?

If it is ultimately determined that Seau is the fourth former NFL within the past 7 years to commit suicide while also showing signs of brain damage, will that be enough circumstantial evidence for us to proceed on the side of caution?

Was it just ironic that Seau killed himself on the same day NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended New Orleans Saint linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season for his role in “Bounty Gate”? A lot of people think Goodell came down so hard on Vilma to set an example, not just to get other players to recognize that violence with the specific intent to injure will be severely punished.

Good, I hope all players heed that message. Lose money and some of your limited career if you want to engage in intentionally dangerous play.

A lot of people think the league’s changing the rules on blows to the head and the consistent fining of players who violate them is little more than an attempt to stay ahead of current and potential lawsuits by players who claim they are victims of the league’s disregard of the seriousness of concussions while they played.

I say a greater good can come from a petty motivation.

I have little doubt that finances are bigger motivation than altruism in the NFL’s newfound concerns about traumatic head injury.

But if a desire to protect money leads to a greater emphasis on player safety, I’m all for it.

If we are truly fans of football, we should all want that.

We can’t allow ourselves to be as nonchalant about a players’ death and/or health as jdid610 and his ilk are.

Death, if it can be prevented, should not be an accepted risk for our entertainment value. n

Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com

John Smallwood Daily News Sports Columnist
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