Junior Seau's Family Will Allow His Brain To Be Studied and the NFL Holds Its Breath

[Over the weekend, Junior Seau's family put out oa statement that they were reconsidering donating his brain for study. The decision is incredibly difficult and raises many religious and cultural, in addition to emotional, questions for the family.]

Today brings news that the family of Junior Seau, the former 10-time All-Pro NFL linebacker who took his own life earlier this week, will be donating his brain for study. They want to know if brain injuries sustained during Seau’s 20-year career may have contributed to his suicide.

"The family was considering this almost from the beginning, but they didn't want to make any emotional decisions," Chargers team chaplain Shawn Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday night. "And when they came to a joint decision that absolutely this was the best thing, it was a natural occurrence for the Seau family to go forward."

The ramifications of their decision cannot be overestimated. While we don’t know why Junior Seau committed suicide, there are stubborn facts around his death that can’t be ignored. We know that Seau was the NFL’s second suicide in the last two weeks. Former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling killed himself on April 19th.

We know that Seau took his life by shooting himself in the chest, and not the head. This was the method of suicide of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson in February 2011. According to Duerson’s much publicized final note, he said he was putting a bullet in his heart instead of his head so his brain could be sent to the Boston University School of Medicine for study. His family complied and it was found that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions. Medical professionals link these injuries to depression, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and as a tragic corollary, suicide. His family is now suing the league in a wrongful death suit.

We also now know that not once in 20 years was Seau ever diagnosed with a concussion on an injury report. This is either a miracle akin to dancing between raindrops, or Seau and team doctors just didn’t report concussions when they occurred. When asked if her husband had ever suffered a concussion, Seau’s ex-wife Gina told ESPN, "Of course he had. He always bounced back and kept on playing. He's a warrior. That didn't stop him. I don't know what football player hasn't. It's not ballet. It's part of the game."

In a heartbreaking column, Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter reflected on the violent passing of his dear friend. He also revealed Seau’s thoughts about head injuries as well as his response to those who say that new safety rules are making the sport “too soft."

"Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don't have a father who can't remember his name because of the game," Seau said to Trotter. "I'm pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids' name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn't there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren't changing. That's not right."

As the Seau family mourns, their deeply courageous decision to submit Seau’s brain for study can have mammoth ramifications far beyond the National Football League. If Seau is proven medically to be another casualty of the inherent violence of tackle football, questions will be raised that have consequences well beyond cosmetic changes like putting up warning posters in NFL locker rooms or moving the kick-offs to the 40 yard line. Should we be allowing children as young as five-years-old to be playing in tackle football leagues around the country? Should anyone under the age of 18, be permitted in partaking in something that, like smoking, is demonstrably proven to kill you before your time? Should NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell be absolutely obligated to give up his demands to make the season 18 games, given the risk involved? Should Roger Goodell and the other NFL owners stop fighting the now 1500 former players suing the NFL for their pain and suffering in retirement and just settle these cases now and come up with some sort of plan moving forward? Does the US Congress need to get involved and empower a team of neurologists not tied to the NFL to come up with a definitive risk assessment of playing tackle football?

There is a temptation to compare the modern NFL game to the ancient gladiator battles of Rome, with the publicly funded mega domes our modern coliseums. But that actually gives the NFL too much credit. Everyone in ancient Rome knew they were watching a blood sport with life or death consequences. The NFL sells itself as entertainment for the entire family. The death of Junior Seau means an end of the innocence. If the autopsy produces what we all expect, it will be time for everyone, from fans, to players, to the media, to owners, to Roger Goodell, to grow the hell up.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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