Friday, May 4, 2012

Junior Seau and the controlled violence of the NFL by Greg Gee & bharv

"I pray to God, 'Take me, take me, leave my son. But it's too late.  I don't understand, I don't understand....I'm shocked....I appreciate everybody showing your love to my son. Junior never did anything bad. I say to you: thank you and you guys for showing your love"

Junior Seau's mother, Luisa, was speaking to reporters and fans after the future hall of fame linebacker was found dead inside his Oceanside, CA home. Seau died apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

As Luisa Seau cried uncontrollably at the microphones, I could not help but think how this death was so tragic on so many levels. I am not saying Junior's death is more tragic than any other death, but his death -- after a stellar 20 year career in the NFL, a loving family, money, and by all accounts, a great guy -- forces us to re-examine how the game of football is played.

No question: The NFL is a dangerous sport.

The NFL has clearly supplanted Major League Baseball as America's favorite pastime sport. There is no single greater American game than the Super Bowl. But at what cost? The players are bigger and faster. The hits are more lethal. Football is a violent, albeit, artistic sport. The physical and cognitive damages are more permanent.

I know it is premature to link Seau's death/suicide to football before a cranial autopsy is conducted, but the signs are there:

There’s no getting inured to scenes like the one that unfolded in Oceanside, Calif., on May 2, where a crowd gathered and a mother wailed as the body of Junior Seau — the sunny, preternaturally good-natured veteran of three NFL teams — was carried out from his home to a coroner’s van, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He left no note.
What made the loss of the 43-year-old Seau especially cruel was not just that he was a model citizen in a sport too often populated by on-field bounty hunters and off-field felons. It was also that this kind of thing has become drearily familiar: Ray Easterling, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s; Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears and New York Giants; and Owen Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania all committed suicide in the past two years.
Other NFLers have died in violent driving incidents — Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009 who tumbled from the back of a moving car while fighting with his girlfriend, who was behind the wheel; and Justin Strzelcyk of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who died in a fiery collision while fleeing the police in 2004. And all of them had one thing in common: their brains had been permanently, disablingly damaged by careers spent clobbering and getting clobbered by other very big, very strong men.
No one yet knows if Seau was suffering from the same kind of degenerative injury, and no one ever will know unless his family agrees to allow his brain to be studied postmortem, the way the brains of the other athletes have been. He does, however, fit the profile. He played for a long time — 20 years in the pros alone, to say nothing of college, high school and Pop Warner. He had recently exhibited uncharacteristically volatile behavior — getting arrested in 2010 on a domestic violence charge and later that day driving his car over a 100-ft. cliff in California, sustaining surprisingly mild injuries. No drugs or alcohol were involved and he claims to have simply lost consciousness.
The condition that claimed Duerson and the others — and may have claimed Seau — is known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Diagnosed only microscopically after slicing and staining cerebral tissue, CTE is an accumulation of sludge-like tau proteins, which, in a healthy brain, are one of the key structural components of nerve tissue. When the head sustains a blow, however, nerve fibers can be wrenched and torn, releasing tau.
“The brain tries to repair this, but it never quite can,” said neurologist Julian Bailes in an earlier interview with TIME. Bailes was the physician who analyzed Henry’s brain and diagnosed CTE. “Given the number of blows or the frequency of the blows, that repair may never quite be complete.”  read more

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