By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts publisher
Junior Seau was an Alpha Male even in the combative, violent world of pro football – he played 20 years in a sport that crushes men like bugs beneath your shoe. He often dominated that sport, too.
For much of his career he barely missed a game. He was a 12-time Pro Bowler and 6-time first-team All Pro. He played in two Super Bowls. His image will likely someday grace the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Those accomplishments put Seau on the short list of all-time pro football legends. That legend was one reason his death has sent shockwaves around the football world. Alpha Males aren’t supposed to take their own lives at age 43.
We outsiders saw a tough man who dominated the toughest of sports. Seau’s mom saw somebody different. She saw and lost her little boy.
“I pray to God, please, take me, take me. Leave my son,”
she cried on national TV soon after news broke of Seau’s tragic death. “But it’s too late. It’s too late.”
Ouch. That's tough. Her desperate cries were the most painful image of a painful day for the Seau family. Does anyone doubt, after seeing the inconsolable mother at the microphone, that she would have laid down her own life at that moment to save her little boy?
While the Seau family struggles today and will struggle for a long time to cope with the loss, the football world immediately began to struggle with its own questions: what caused this popular athlete who had wealth, fame, three boys and a sunny smile to take his own life with so much of it still ahead of him?
There are two possibilities that immediately struck almost all football fans.
The first possibility
is that Seau is another victim of the physical trauma of pro football that leads to so many brain injuries and early deaths. Just last year, ex-NFL player Dave Duerson also committed suicide, indicating he wanted his brain examined after his death. The examination revealed that he had indeed suffered neuro-degeneration. Right now, the NFL is under siege from lawsuits filed by some 1,500 former players. They allege that the NFL concealed the links between concussions and permanent brain injury. These lawsuits represent an existential crisis for the NFL.
The second possibility
is that Seau could not cope with life outside the limelight. Seau may have survived life in the NFL without the brain trauma that afflicts so many others. We don’t know right now. But there is the personal struggle faced by so many former athletes and rock stars: how do you live when the cheering stops, when you’re no longer main-lining the adrenaline rush of adulation you got each Sunday playing before 70,000 screaming fans? History tells us that the loss of that defining part of your young life drives many people to destructive personal behavior.
But there is a third possibility, too, one few people are talking about right now: Seau took is life for neither reason. Thoughts and acts of suicide haunt people from all walks of life and all corners of society. Sadly, football players do not hold a monopoly on tragic lives that end early. We shouldn’t pretend that they do. Maybe Seau was haunted by issues and problems that had little to do with his career in the NFL.
According to statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health
, it’s likely that 95 other Americans committed suicide yesterday alone. More than 1,000 other people were so disconsolate yesterday that they attempted suicide. Some say more support will help ex-football players. And perhaps it will. But consider the plight of the medical community itself, which is plagued by its own suicide crisis: some 400 U.S. doctors take their own lives each year
. Few if any generate national headlines.
The deal with the devil
Sympathy for the painful cries of a mother is difficult to debate. Sympathy usually wins. And right now, sympathy is on the side of ex-football players who blame the NFL for their plight.
But it's not that simple. The reality is that NFL players have to accept some responsibility, too. They may be victims in some way, but if so they’re certainly not innocent victims.
Regardless of what led Seau to take his own life – we don’t know now and may never know – the reality is that pro football players make a proverbial deal with the devil when they choose
to play pro football. It’s a choice they make of their own free will and for the most part they’re rewarded lavishly for doing so. Other people in other walks of life make tougher life choices for lesser rewards, without the publicity.
Some young men are given a rare choice in life at age 21 or 22:
You can go get a job laying bricks or sitting in a cubicle ant farm making $25,000, $60,000, $80,000 or maybe someday $100,000 a year. You’ll have the prospect, but no guarantee, of a decent home, family and long life, but you’ll be just another schlep trudging away to just another job each morning.
You can take up to millions of dollars from an NFL team to play pro football and get all the perks that go with it: fame, women, adulation, and opportunities to care for your family financially that you will likely never get again. You will meet powerful people and enjoy future opportunities denied the average schlep. Oh, there’s the increased likelihood, but again no guarantee, that you’ll suffer lifelong physical or mental illness and perhaps die by age 50.
Year after year, almost every single one of these men choose Plan B. Meanwhile, if you surveyed the average 22-year-old American male stuck in a dead-end job right now, there’s an overwhelming likelihood that they’d choose Plan B, too.
Millions of people, especially young people today in a celebrity-worshipping culture, dream of a more glamorous life of fame, money and adulation. The NFL, easily the most popular sport in the nation, is a coveted ticket to that more glamorous life.
This deal with the devil is so tempting that few if any refuse it. It begins with a free education at a major university, a value of upwards of $200,000 that so many less talented people cannot afford and many more deserving people are denied. Then, if these deal makers are good enough, they get a shot at an endless list of earthly delights: gobs of cash that they’ll never make any other way. The fame. The adulation. The adrenaline rush. The women who wouldn’t give Joe the Accountant the time of day throw themselves at pro football players.
But you don’t get something for nothing in life. And the price of football fame is clearly a high one.
Yet just last week, NFL teams gave 253 young men a chance to take that deal with the devil. (Note: we do NOT believe NFL owners are the devils; it's just a figure of speech, folks.) All 253 will likely make the deal. So, too, will hundreds of other undrafted players fresh out of college. Those contracts are happily being signed as we speak.
And these players make that decision with a coveted safety net in their pocket: merely because of their ability to play football, society handed them a college education, or a chance at one, and a ticket to a better career path often denied less fortunate people. Remember, this free education came at the expense of educating somebody else – perhaps somebody else more deserving based on mental acumen and based on what they might have offered society upon graduation. Perhaps society lost a nurse or a teacher when it gained a football player.
You can argue that players 50, 20 or 10 years ago didn’t know the potential for life-altering damage that may come from playing pro football. Hence, all the lawsuits from ex-players who could destroy the league that gave them so much opportunity. It’s a fair argument to say they were ignorant of the price they may have to pay. Meanwhile, the anecdotal but tragic stories, like those of Hall of Famer Mike Webster
, who died 10 years ago at age 50, have been known for years.
Still, those 253 young men drafted last week all now know of the potential dangers down the road. The crisis among ex-players has been headline news for a few years now. All 253 young men are still rolling their dice with the proverbial devil.
The NFL's existential crisis
So the talent pipeline feeding the NFL is not likely to dry up anytime soon. Next season, nearly 2,000 young men will pull on NFL uniforms each Sunday. Next season, millions of fans will lustily anticipate every single snap and fret over the fortunes of their football fantasy team from the comfort of their own home. Next season, the mega-arenas of the SEC and Big 10 will overflow with jubilant football fans screaming themselves hoarse. The pipeline of talent to the NFL is still gushing out kids ready and willing to make that deal with the devil.
The real test will come10 or 15 years from now. Will parents, haunted by the Seau tragedy and the images of his inconsolable mother, start pulling their kids off football fields? That’s the existential crisis for the NFL and for the unique sport that helps define our unique culture: will American parents deny their kids the opportunity to play football long before the devil gets the chance to tempt them?
If so, that’s when football will die. It will rot from the smallest little roots that feed the larger tree. But that outcome is not likely, not as long as so many dollars and so many earthly delights are hung out to tempt young men, and even their families. The reality is that the NFL is a ticket to a better life for thousands of people. There is no way to replace those opportunities. And there is a hungry audience of football fans and sponsors throwing their dollars at the sport.
We can look at football as a sport that chews up and spits out innocent young men with no safety net. Or we can be honest with ourselves and admit that football gives opportunities to young men they might not otherwise have – even if it does come at a cost. A lot of choices in life come with a heavy cost ... many without the chance for rewards so high.
With that said, the NFL clearly must act to solve its potential existential crisis. And it's walking a very thin razor's edge. The league can’t afford to let the talent pipeline go dry. It’s a possibility it will dry up when we see high-profile ex-players take their own lives. On the other hand, the NFL can't let itself be defined by the rare tragedies and it can't afford to change the sport so radically that it loses its fans, sponsors and the dollars that feed the machine.
One slightly radical solution that solves many ills
There are potential solutions, none of which seem popular. The Cold, Hard Football Facts have suggested in the past that the NFL go back to leather helmets and the
Don’t laugh. It’s a practical, if seemingly radical solution. It will solve four problems:
One, it will end the practice of using the helmet as weapon and the head itself as a piece of forgeiron to batter other players.
Two, it will replace over-muscled 300-pound monsters with more reasonably sized athletes who, like soccer players, have to go both ways and play the entire game. Two-way football is better suited to fast, sinewy 220-pound men than it is to 320-pound behemoths juiced up on HGH.
Three, it will weed out the human missiles like James Harrison who know only how to launch themselves at ball carriers.
Four, it will bring some frontier justice to the game. Harrison is less likely to decapitate a receiver when he might be carrying the ball on the next series.
We all have this image of dusty stone age football in which ugly, brutish men steamrolled each other violently. But the reality is that, by the 1940s, football was a graceful ballet of tough but athletic men skilled enough to play quarterback at one moment and tough enough to play safety at the next. It was an exciting sport, too. The NFL equates points with excitement. Well, as we've often noted, the greatest scoring season in NFL history was the leather-helmeted year of 1948, not the pass-happy year of 2011.
College football was wildly popular, and pro football grew wildly popular, with guys in leather helmets playing both ways. There’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t remain popular. The image of Ben Roethlisberger at linebacker is a fairly compelling one to us.
It’s just one suggestion, folks. In the meantime, we can expect young men to make the same deal with the devil and mothers to weep if it all goes tragically wrong for their boys in the end.