Junior Seau didn’t just commit suicide last week. He probably killed football itself.
Now, to be sure, both pro and college teams will take the field next fall, and they’ll do so in packed stadiums and to awesome TV ratings. The death Seau inflicted on his sport won’t work quite as fast as the bullet he put in his own chest—football is simply too popular and profitable to disappear overnight. It will take years, and perhaps decades. But it is coming.
And for good reason. Football—it seems abundantly clear now—kills its players. And as Seau’s death may yet prove, it even kills its biggest and brightest stars.
Turns out that ramming into other human beings at high speeds, over and over again during a game, over and over again over the years, turns your mind into mush. Autopsies on the brains of numerous former football players show a pattern of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, holes in brain that often cause depression, dementia and early death. It doesn’t just take a concussion—though that’s where the discussion has been mostly focused; it just takes the normal wear and tear of playing football.
Philadelphia has been struck especially hard—at least publicly—by the disease of football. CTE was found in the brain of Owen Thomas, a Penn lineman, who killed himself two years ago. Same for former Eagle Andre Waters, who killed himself in 2006; a pathologist said the 44-year-old’s brain looked like that of an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease. Former Falcon Ray Easterling killed himself a few months ago. And perhaps most famously, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson killed himself in a manner designed to preserve his brain for autopsy—yes, CTE was found—by shooting himself in the chest.
Just like Junior Seau.
We don’t know if Seau had Duerson on his mind when he chose his method of suicide. And we don’t yet know what Seau’s autopsy will show. If it doesn’t show CTE, then it’s only a matter of time before somebody else—some other big superstar—dies an early death easily attributable to the game. We know the damage that football does to its players isn’t limited to those men who have committed suicide: The average life expectancy of an NFL player is reportedly 55 years of age.
In recent years, egghead commentators like Malcolm Gladwell have pondered the morality of football, even likening it to the dog fights that Michael Vick once so infamously ran. More recently, smart writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates have made a decision to turn away from the sport.
Of course, those guys are latté-sipping elitists. Perhaps more remarkable was the confession of Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples, who suggested last week that he wouldn’t let his own son play the game.
“I’m hoping the people in charge have taken drastic steps to ensure the game goes on for generations,” Staples wrote. “But if it remains as dangerous as it is today, I’m installing a basketball hoop.”
Would you make a different decision?
And if you can’t bear to watch your child play a game that seems likely to cause him long-term pain and suffering—never mind the early grave—how can you justify watching other people’s sons sacrifice themselves? All of us have a choice: Acknowledge that lives are less important than the entertainment offered by a good game. Or we can turn away.
It’s an easy choice, I think.
My own son, not quite 4 years old, is a big kid. The butcher down the street from us—himself an old football player who loves to tell stories of his high school gridiron glories—has been talking him up as a football prospect for several years. But when the butcher and I got to talking about Junior Seau’s death last week, he mentioned that he still gets terrible headaches—lingering damage, he believes, from his time on the playing field.
If that’s not convincing, consider this: A few weeks ago, HBO shut down production on the horse-racing series Luck, because three horses had died during filming. The money and entertainment provided by the show, it was decided, couldn’t offset the cost in equine life.
Isn’t human life more valuable? If your answer is “yes” then it is only a matter of time: Football is destined to die.