Former Chargers and Patriots All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau suffered from a brain ailment commonly — and increasingly — associated with contact sports and blows to the head. Called chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE] it’s been tied to recent suicides, like Seau’s last summer, of prominent pro football players.
Researchers at Boston University, who pioneered the study of CTE, have found it in 18 of the 19 brains of former NFL players they have examined.
You’d have to call that “statistically significant.” Seau played four years at USC and then 20 years in the NFL. He’s gone now.
Last Sunday, Washington Redskins rookie star quarterback Robert Griffin III — the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner at Baylor — suffered a double knee ligament injury. Even casual followers of NFL trends heard commentators — many of whom coached or played the game — talk all season about the violent hits RGIII took, long before his knee simply buckled in Sunday’s playoff game against Seattle.
A strong passer and even better runner, he’d been sacked, tackled and crunched numerous times, injuring one of his ligaments in an earlier game so he had to wear a brace in his last one. Add to it all that he’d torn up his knee at Baylor in 2009.
Much has been written about Washington Coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to play Griffin, despite his injury; as well as the QB’s own comments that he was hurt, but not injured, and had to play to help his team win. A 60-year-old should know better; a 22-year-old, however proficient at football, is clueless.
For more on their reasoning, read what respected CBS Sports writer Mike Freeman wrote Monday.
The NFL’s crisis is summed up in these two bookends: Seau, a suicide after 20 years in the NFL, likely because of the brain damage he suffered playing; Griffin, the bright, young, future hope of a storied franchise and a league frantic to replace Peyton Manning and Tom Brady with quality successors, maybe facing an end to his career after one year. Or, he may play again, but never at the same level.
Why the cost? These are modern gladiators, and we the NFL fans are a thumbs-up, thumbs-down mob. But the NFL is not Rome and its stadiums are not the Coliseum, though some days they may resemble it.
There are more playoff games this weekend, leading up to the annual larger-than-life confluence of capitalism and violent sport, the Super Bowl, Feb. 3. It’s a good time to reflect.
The NFL has a commission “studying” head injuries; meanwhile the crisis worsens. Rule changes now protect players from direct and unprotected shots to the head. Kickoffs may end. But penalties and fines tend to come after a player suffers the hit. That’s not doing anything for his future prognosis.
And in many cases, the players are their own worst enemies, crowding to stand on the macho platform of courage, speed, strength and power they’ve had drummed into them by coaches going back to PeeWee. RGIII, by all accounts a high-character guy, spouted the same hooha about why he had to play last Sunday.
If it ends or curtails his career after one year [QBs tend to play 10-15 years] was it worth it? Is the current pain, rehab and delay before playing next season worth winning one playoff game, especially when an effective backup quarterback was available? If RGIII misses a second huge contract — typically for a star QB, $10 million to $15 million a year for five years with a keep-it-all signing bonus of maybe $35 million to $50 million — will it be worth it?
What’s wrong with these people? What’s wrong with us?
Where is the NFL’s sense of responsibility for the game it sells to the American public, and is supposed to police. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, a fair and trusted leader in a tight spot, throws weekly fines at players for too brutal hits. Shouldn’t he fine Shanahan for what amounts to employee abuse?
Ask Junior Seau.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.