Junior Seau suicide sparks more questions about NFL head injuries

May 3, 2012

Just days after the suicide of retired NFL star Junior Seau, a lot of people are wondering whether the head injuries he suffered on the field may have played a role in his death.

'Gut punch' to the sports world

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says Junior Seau was one of the most respected, gregarious and successful football players in NFL history.

Seau had a 20-year career and played in the Pro Bowl 14 times. He grew up in San Diego, went to USC and was drafted in the first round by his hometown team, the San Diego Chargers. He led them to their only Super Bowl in 1994. But Art says there was more to Junior Seau than just talent.

"He also had a brain and he also had a heart. His philanthropy, his passion, his intellect and his overall friendly demeanor were widely known and widely admired. That's why this was such a profound gut punch to the NFL community and the sports world at large. This man made a huge impact on many people."

Was hard-hitting career to blame?

Because Seau's death follows so closely on the heels of two high-profile suicides in former NFL defensive backs, MSNBC reports many are wondering if the concussions Seau sustained during his long career contributed to his death.

Art says it's too soon to tell, but the questions are not without foundation.

"More than 1,000 NFL retired players are suing the league now over what they claim is neglect of the issues of head trauma to long-term brain function consequence. And the NFL has responded. They changed the rules of the game last year - in mid-season - to try to minimize the damage that may be coming from consistent collisions."

With Seau's death, Art says there's more urgency for the NFL to further research the effects of brain trauma on its players.

"He committed suicide in the fashion that another great player did. Dave Duerson left a suicide note and shot himself in the chest so that, according to the note, his brain could be used as part of the study that is going on now to try to analyze consistent brain trauma and subsequent behavioral and functional problems in retired players."

Dave Duerson killed himself in February 2011. He played for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s. He believed the hits he took to the head during his decade in the NFL caused him to be mentally impaired.

Duerson's children have filed a lawsuit against the NFL. Fox News Chicago reports former Atlanta Falcons player Ray Easterling filed his suit last year, but the 62 year old shot himself last month.

UPDATE: We learned Friday that Seau's family will donate his brain for medical research into the impact of repetitive concussions on football players.

Chargers curse?

NPR is among the news outlets reporting that Seau was the eighth member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers Super Bowl team to die before the age of 45. That includes Lewis Bush, the former Washington State University player who died of an apparent heart attack last December at the age of 42.

Tragic timing

Seau's death comes the same week that the NFL handed down suspensions of four current and former players of the New Orleans Saints for the scandal that's become known as "Bountygate." An NFL investigation found that the Saints operated a bounty system rewarding between 22 and 27 players for hard hits and injuring opposing players.

Art says the owners are trying to protect the players from themselves. But he says the players are willing to jeopardize their health - despite the increasing knowledge about brain trauma - because they know that they can make, in just a few years, all the money they'll need to live a good life.

"The problem is that good life is shown to be more and more compromised by the damage one does playing football. And I think just about every parent of a football-playing child is watching this and so it's increased the tension in the NFL right now to a level that I've never seen. And it's a genuine threat to the success of the most successful sports enterprise in American history."

You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest.