The NFL’s Elephant in the Room
As of last night, the parents of Junior Seau, who are from the island of Aunu’u, American Samoa, were meeting with Samoan elders to discuss how to respond to requests by researchers for the opportunity to study Seau’s brain. Last Wednesday, Seau, former linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, was found dead in his Oceanside, California home. His death was ruled a suicide. The media is saturated this week with discussion of whether Seau’s NFL career played a role in his early death. There are a number of indisputable facts, between which one can interpolate:
• Seau took his own life by shooting himself in the chest. Fifteen months ago, former NFL safety Dave Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, having left a suicide note asking for his brain to be donated for research. The Boston University School of Medicine Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy determined that Duerson’s brain indeed showed signs of CTE, the progressive, degenerative disease associated with repetitive closed head injuries.
• Up until April 19, 2012, Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the NFL over concussion-related injuries. Since his death last month, by suicide, his widow has vowed to continue to fight the lawsuit her husband started after 20 years of suffering from symptoms of repetitive head trauma including memory loss, mood changes and depression.
• According to a 2011 study conducted by the Matthew A. Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, the average life expectancy of a retired NFL player is 55 years. Some insurance providers have indicated that this is actually an overestimation, and that in fact the average age is somewhere closer to 51 years. For comparison purposes, the average male life expectancy in the United States is 78.2 years. [Note: If you played for the San Diego Chargers in 1994’s Super Bowl XXIX, then the odds against you are significantly grimmer. Eight of those teammates are dead, all before reaching the age of 45; a statistical anomaly since the 8 deaths lacked common cause.]
• The same UNC study suggested that retired NFL players suffer from dementia at a 37% higher rate than average.
• A 2006 report in the St. Petersburg Times found that the more games and practices an NFL player survives, the quicker he dies. In his first 14 pro seasons, Seau missed only 9 games.
If Seau’s parents decide not to donate his brain for research, we may never know with certainty whether he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. One thing is for sure, there’s something about playing in the NFL that doesn’t bode well for one’s life trajectory. Are repeated head hits causing organic damage to the brain, after which depression is the next domino to fall? Or perhaps, as in Easterling’s case, organic brain damage brings on intolerable shifts in personality and cognitive functioning, but in an unkind twist, leaves one with just enough insight to see what lies ahead. Roger Goodell has made great strides since becoming NFL commissioner in 2006, introducing preseason baseline concussion testing, for example, not to mention the unprecedented smackdown of the Saints players implicated in the bounty scandal earlier this month. His work is far from finished.
Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger