Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
I don’t know all the details, nor does anyone, about Junior Seau’s post-retirement life and the role it played in his death—reportedly by suicide—on Tuesday. All I know are two things: Seau the football player was undoubtedly one of the most fearsome and dominant linebackers during his 20 seasons with the Chargers, Dolphins, and Patriots that the league has ever seen; and Seau exhibited some erratic behavior after his playing days had ended, most notably driving his Cadillac Escalade off a cliff after a domestic violence arrest and miraculously surviving.
With stories like this, we’re always told one thing: “Wait for the facts to come out” or “Don’t jump to conclusions.”
Fair enough. As of now, this is indeed nothing more than a painfully tragic end to the life of an exemplary man both on and off the field way before his time.
At the same time, it’s fitting that news of Seau’s death broke concurrently with the news of further suspensions in the NFL’s ginned up Bountygate scandal, with four players being suspended for their role in an alleged pay-for-injury system in New Orleans, most notably, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who will be forced to sit out the entire season.
There’s a reason that the NFL wanted to send such a powerful message with their reaction to Bountygate. It’s the same reason why otherwise rational writers and fans of all stripes were going over the top in their efforts to censure the Saints, as suggestions included stripping multiple first-rounders, firing Sean Payton, vacating their Super Bowl, and instituting a playoff ban. (For a particularly fascinating exercise in hyperbole, read this Peter King mailbag.)
The reason this reaction was so visceral was that it was part of a larger recent dialogue on violence in the game, and the thought of being a spectator to vicious hits with the intention of badly injuring opponents rightfully made many uncomfortable. Even merely hearing talk of it was no better; many were ready to throw filmmaker Sean Pamphilon a ticker tape parade for releasing audio of Gregg Williams saying “cut off the head” in reference to 49ers running back Frank Gore.
But at the end of the day, that’s really all this scandal was about: the on-field product. What we watch. What we see. What we hear. What’s hurting the sanctity of our beloved sport. The stuff that’s a part of sports talk radio, mainstream press, the blogosphere, social media, and everywhere else when the game is picked apart Monday morning. If they suspend James Harrison for every late hit and raise holy hell on the Saints, the NFL looks like they’re trying, and the fans feel better because they know where the line between acceptable and unacceptable is and exactly when to get outraged when somebody crosses it. The cringeworthy brutality of the on-field product is ostensibly being fixed.
Now let’s take a look what’s going on off the field of play, when ignorance is much easier, when complacency is damn near encouraged, and most importantly, when we can stop paying attention and not see anything:
-Hall of Fame Steelers center Mike Webster died at the age of 50 of a heart attack in 2002. His final years were recounted in Jeanne Marie Laskas’s GQ profile of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his studies on NFL-related brain injuries:
[Webster’s] life after football had been mysterious and tragic, and on the news they were going on and on about it. What had happened to him? How does a guy go from four Super Bowl rings to…pissing in his own oven and squirting Super Glue on his rotting teeth? Mike Webster bought himself a Taser gun, used that on himself to treat his back pain, would zap himself into unconsciousness just to get some sleep. Mike Webster lost all his money, or maybe gave it away. He forgot. A lot of lawsuits. Mike Webster forgot how to eat, too. Soon Mike Webster was homeless, living in a truck, one of its windows replaced with a garbage bag and tape.
Dr. Omalu was assigned to perform the autopsy on Webster upon his death. He received permission to do additional research on Webster’s brain. His findings were startling:
He put the first slide from the new set under his microscope and looked in.
“What is this?” he said out loud. “Geez. Gee! What is this?”
Brown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning.
This was why Mike Webster was crazy.
He described this condition as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurological disorder described as a form of degenerative brain damage brought about by repeated head trauma.
Webster was the tip of the iceberg.
-Andre Waters, a defensive back who spent 12 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, was found dead at age 44 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A New York Times interview with Dr. Omalu revealed “Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims.”
-Terry Long, a former Steelers guard, died at age 45 after multiple suicide attempts; the fatal blow occurred when he drank antifreeze. After examining his brain, Dr. Omalu found Long suffered from the same condition as Webster. “This looks more like a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer’s,” he told GQ.
-Justin Strzelczyk, a former Steelers offensive lineman, died at age 36. He battled depression and complained of hearing voices from what he referred to as “the evil ones.” He was killed during a high-speed chase with police when he crashed head-on into a tanker. When examining Dr. Omalu’s findings on Strzelczyk’s brain, Dr. Ronald Hamilton told the Times, “If I didn’t know anything about this case and I looked at the slides, I would have asked, ‘Was this patient a boxer?’”
-Dave Duerson, a star safety for the Bears, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 50. According to the Times, family described Duerson as “finding it hard to remember names and to put words together,” and his final letter mentioned pain “on the left side of his brain.” He also left a note, which read: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
-Tom McHale, a guard for the Buccaneers, died of an overdose of oxycodone and cocaine at age 45. Dr. Ann C. McKee told the Times, “the brain damage Tom McHale developed—which drug abuse cannot cause, doctors added—probably played a role in his self-destruction in his final years.”
-Chris Henry was a Bengals receiver who died from injuries sustained in a car accident at the age of 26. An autopsy revealed he had traces of CTE in multiple areas of his brain. He was never diagnosed with a concussion during his time in college or the pros.
-Just last week, Ray Easterling, a former safety for the Atlanta Falcons, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was currently in the middle of a lawsuit against the NFL regarding negligence in concussion treatment in the 1970s.
With the exception of the recent deaths of Easterling and Seau, each of the aforementioned players was found to have CTE. These players played different positions. Together, they played over periods spanning four decades. They died at different ages. Their brains showed the same thing.
In a New Yorker piece on brain damage and head trauma, Malcolm Gladwell reported on a study by the Sports Concussion Research Program at the University of North Carolina, which placed sensors inside player’s helmets to measure the force and location of blows to the head. Kevin Guskiewicz, who is in charge of the program, told Gladwell the following about a study on a Tar Heels defensive lineman who suffered two concussions during the 2004 season:
“The first concussion was during preseason. The team was doing two-a-days,” he said, referring to the habit of practicing in both the morning and the evening in the preseason. “It was August 9th, 9:55 A.M. He has an 80-g hit to the front of his head. About ten minutes later, he has a 98-g acceleration to the front of his head.” To put those numbers in perspective, Guskiewicz explained, if you drove your car into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs: in effect, the player had two car accidents that morning. He survived both without incident. “In the evening session, he experiences this 64-g hit to the same spot, the front of the head. Still not reporting anything. And then this happens.” On his laptop, Guskiewicz ran the video from the practice session. It was a simple drill: the lineman squaring off against an offensive player who wore the number 76. The other player ran toward the lineman and brushed past him, while delivering a glancing blow to the defender’s helmet. “Seventy-six does a little quick elbow. It’s 63 gs, the lowest of the four, but he sustains a concussion.”
“The second injury was nine weeks later,” Guskiewicz continued. “He’s now recovered from the initial injury. It’s a game out in Utah. In warmups, he takes a 76-g blow to the front of his head. Then, on the very first play of the game, on kickoff, he gets popped in the earhole. It’s a 102-g impact. He’s part of the wedge.” He pointed to the screen, where the player was blocking on a kickoff: “Right here.” The player stumbled toward the sideline. “His symptoms were significantly worse than the first injury.” Two days later, during an evaluation in Guskiewicz’s clinic, he had to have a towel put over his head because he couldn’t stand the light. He also had difficulty staying awake. He was sidelined for sixteen days.
When we think about football, we worry about the dangers posed by the heat and the fury of competition. Yet the HITS data suggest that practice—the routine part of the sport—can be as dangerous as the games themselves. We also tend to focus on the dramatic helmet-to-helmet hits that signal an aggressive and reckless style of play. Those kinds of hits can be policed. But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure. And why was the second concussion—in the game at Utah—so much more serious than the first? It’s not because that hit to the side of the head was especially dramatic; it was that it came after the 76-g blow in warmup, which, in turn, followed the concussion in August, which was itself the consequence of the thirty prior hits that day, and the hits the day before that, and the day before that, and on and on, perhaps back to his high-school playing days.
This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.
According to GQ, Guskiewicz and Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and former Steelers team doctor, issued a report in 2003 which found that “players who had suffered multiple concussions were three times more likely to suffer clinical depression.” A follow-up 2005 study found that NFL players were afflicted with Alzheimer’s at a rate 37 percent higher than an average person.
I’m 26, and when I think of boxing or pro wrestling I don’t think of the glory days that people a generation ahead of me fondly recall when waxing poetic about these sports. I think about Freddie Roach shaking through entire interviews as he battles Parkinson’s disease. I think about a frail Muhammad Ali unable to throw out the first pitch at the opening of the Marlins’ new ballpark. I think about Chris Benoit and the horrifying details surrounding the deaths of him, his wife, and child. (It was later determined that Benoit had CTE and his brain, like many of the others examined, was closer to that of an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s.)
Webster died in 2002. Dr. Omalu first published a paper on his findings in 2005. Laskas and Gladwell published their articles in 2009. Other than suspensions for bounties and hard hits, a revamping of retired player benefits in the new CBA, a new concussion protocol all teams must adhere to in assessing whether players can return to games, and the oft-discussed elixir of “new helmets,” there seems to be little traction in taking the drastic steps needed to address this issue. And if the league drags their feet any longer, a new generation of NFL fans will begin to think of the tragic stories and disturbing studies above rather than the images of triumph and glory the league wants to be associated with. It’s fair to ask at what point does the generation behind me start to look at football the way I look at boxing and wrestling?
This all raises the question no one wants to ask: What if there is no answer? After all, the NFL is still relatively new compared to other sports. What if there isn’t anything to help humans sustain repeated blows to the head without long-term damage? What if these types of head injuries have always been the case and only now are we able to produce the necessary research to prove it? What if there’s no magic bullet? What if it can’t be fixed? We’re nowhere near the end of football. We’re not even close to changing the way football is currently played save for a few half-hearted gestures like altering kickoff rules. But as the research trickles in, as the horrific premature deaths keep occurring, as the lawsuits keep piling up, something’s gotta give.
I’ve already changed the way I watch football. I cringe at hits I use to celebrate. The human side outweighs any competitive interests. We’re four months from the start of a new season, and we’ll hear a lot about reactions like mine, about changing attitudes and the culture of the game. Roger Goodell can fine the James Harrisons of the world, he can fine and suspend the Saints, he can fine each and every hit the league arbitrarily deems to be illegal. But once again, this is all about something Goodell and the league can control: what happens on the field.
If we’ve learned anything from these tragic events, the focus needs to be on the players after they walk off it.