As humans, we’re hard-wired to cope with a traumatic event through discussion. The discussions that have taken place around the Internet in the days following Junior Seau’s death are, of course, much different than the ones happening among his immediate friends and family.
Theirs is one of grieving, while ours revolves around the consideration of deep questions that don’t have corresponding deep answers. It’s dangerous, yet inevitable. We can conclude with reasonable confidence that football and the lack of a fulfilling life after football had a significant effect on Seau. But beyond that, we know little, and we won’t know much more until his brain is examined (if his brain is examined).
Given the amount of hits he sustained over a career being a behemoth, it’s naive to think Seau didn’t sustain head injuries, and therefore the potential exists for some lingering effects in retirement. But exactly how far are we willing to take our concerns for Seau, and allow them to change our enjoyment of football?
More simply, is this our fault?
That’s the question Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports posed and pondered in his column this morning. At its core, a professional sport is entertainment, and a diversion for the public at large. Boyhood dreams are spawned only through the existence of the cheering crowd, and its roar after a sack, reception, or touchdown throw. As viewer and consumer, what responsibility to we have?
That answer is the most muddled of all the non-answers in our brief post-Seau discussion, and the most subjective. For Doyel, his answer lies in risk assumption:
Your answer is yours, just like my answer is mine. For me, it comes down to choice — and football players have a choice whether to play or not. It’s not a blind choice, either. This isn’t the 1960s, when Colts tight end John Mackey had no idea what the violent collisions were doing to his brain. The greatest tight end of his generation was showing signs of dementia in his 50s, in an assisted-living center at age 65, dead at 69. Mackey never knew the risks, but today’s players know. Playing football is like smoking a cigarette: This isn’t the 1960s; everyone knows the risks.
That line of thinking has been pushed repeatedly, even in the immediate days following Seau’s death when thought can be clouded by emotion. It’s one I can support, but timidly. I always hesitate when I feel my voice rising several octaves to Helen Lovejoy‘s worrisome pitch. But if the trend we’ve seen over the last few years continues and players still dramatically struggle with the football afterlife, then it will become increasingly easier to subdue the instinctive urge to rise from the couch when another ball carrier is flattened.
For parents, the question has become a matter of mental balancing. Does the potential for long-term harm outweigh the mental benefits of team play? Again, a complex question, and one that Kurt Warner has struggled with. The Super Bowl winning quarterback turned analyst first said he’s unsure if he wants his sons playing football, and then backed off those comments.
Today, he wrote at length on his website, and explained that both thoughts are acceptable:
As a football player and a fan of the game I want my kids to play the game that I am so passionate about. They currently play football and there are few things that bring me more joy than watching them play and getting excited about the game I love. But, at the same time I am constantly concerned about my kids and the violence of the game of football. I worry about them suffering head trauma and developing any long-term issues as a result of that injury.
If there’s any answer to be found to such difficult, subjective questions, it lies in perception. Specifically, the perception players have of their roles at a young age. Brandon Marshall, the Bears receiver who’s struggled through his own mental issues, wrote a guest column for the Chicago Sun-Times over the weekend, and he touched on something that’s so painfully simplistic, yet so often overlooked.
For Marshall, the natural process of “validating” and the internalizing that follows is problematic:
As I began to meditate more on Junior’s death, I began to think about this vicious cycle our world is in. The word ‘‘validate’’ started to run through my mind.
The cycle starts when we are young boys and girls. Let me illustrate it for you:
Li’l Johnny is outside playing and falls. His dad tells him to get up and be strong, to stop crying because men don’t cry.
So even from the age of 2, our belief system begins to form this picture. We are teaching our boys not to show weakness or share any feelings or emotions, other than to be strong and tough.
Is that ‘‘validating’’?
What do we do when Li’l Susie falls? We say: ‘‘It’s OK. I’m here. Let me pick you up.’’
That’s very validating, and it’s teaching our girls that expressing emotions is OK.
We wonder why it’s so hard to bridge the communication gap between men and women.
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher had similar thoughts, telling Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that the male species is “hard-wired to hold things inside,” and the lesson he’s learned as a player who will soon face retirement is to fight that instinct.
Humans play football, and therefore injuries and depression will happen. How both are dealt with is far more important than their prevention. If the lesson of Seau’s passing keeps spreading to Fletcher and beyond, we can all continue to feel good about watching football on Sundays.