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In May, when word of Junior Seau's suicide began circulating around the sports world, we publicly praised the 20-year vet's style of play while questioning whether it contributed to his death.
It seems we have an answer. His family said this week that Seau had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Despite Seau being a household name, it doesn't appear his death is going to be a game-changer. Not now, when so much of our focus is on the playoffs. Not when we're still talking about the BCS title game and which coach is going to end up where. College message boards are lighting up and high school players are hitting the weight room trying to earn a scholarship. Seau's death was sad, the CTE disturbing, but the big-time football world keeps on turning.
|The Chargers honored Junior Seau by retiring his number in September.|
It was just a year ago that surefire Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher raised some eyebrows on HBO's "Real Sports" when he looked at Andrea Kremer and said: "If I have a concussion these days, I'm going to say, 'Oh man, something happened to my toe or knee or something; I've got to come out for a few plays,' just to get your bearings back."
Granted those remarks were made before Seau's death, but -- come on -- we knew the dangers of sports-related concussions by then. And CTE, the degenerative disease typically caused by multiple hits to the head, had already been diagnosed in more than 30 former pro players, and the number only grows every time an ex-player's brain is donated and examined.
The truth is, Urlacher, like so many NFL players, knows the risks inherent to football and embraces them.
And in a way, we're glad they do because it allows the rest of us to ignore the growing questions of morality surrounding the game we love so much. After all, if the players don't care about possibly cutting their lives short, why should the rest of us? Seau's death, while shocking, won't move the needle because the needle can't be moved by the thousands who are a part of the NFL family. It will be moved only by the millions who didn't make it onto the professional field.
Consider this: Fewer than 69,000 of the 1.1 million high school football players go on to play in the NCAA. Less than 2 percent of college players make it to the pros. Translation: The vast majority of the kids playing on Friday nights are exposing their brains to big-time hits but will never see the big time.
That's not hyperbole.
That's the direction research points, making this less of an NFL issue -- even though the deaths of Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Seau made us first look -- and more of a public health one.
Of the 50 cases of CTE that researchers at Boston University have confirmed, nine were college players and six played only in high school, including 17-year-old Nathan Stiles, the youngest person to date to receive a CTE diagnosis. Stiles collapsed during the last game of his high school career and was on life support hours later. An autopsy revealed he died of second-impact syndrome, when the brain sustains an injury before it has properly healed from the first.
The cynic could dismiss Stiles' case, but then there's the research from Purdue University.
Last year, Purdue released a two-year study of a high school football team which found that 17 of the players did not suffer concussions yet showed significant changes in their brain function. What kind of changes? The kind that have been associated with CTE.
"This is still circumstantial evidence but it suggests that whether you are concussed or not, your brain is changing as a result of all these hits," said Eric Nauman, an associate professor at the university and an expert in central nervous system and musculoskeletal trauma.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an initiative that offers information about concussions to coaches and parents, but if head trauma begins before a diagnosed concussion, as the Purdue study suggests, the CDC's efforts aren't enough. They don't equip people with an effective way to assess brain injury that is less severe than the leg-wobbling, blackout concussions.
That's not to say we should pull high school football because of one sample group in Indiana. We should learn more. When Seau's CTE was made public, the NFL announced millions in donations toward further research. But given the popularity of the sport, it is in the country's best interest to move beyond relying on an industry that profits from our love of football to provide the bulk of the funding necessary to determine how dangerous the game actually is. That would be like relying on the tobacco industry to tell us about the dangers of smoking and we would never, ever do that.
We need better information about football's risks at all ages. The CDC should reframe the conversation as a public health issue and initiate serious research. That way people can spend less time vilifying the NFL like hypocrites and more time analyzing their choices closer to home.
Let's face it: No matter how many suicides occur, there's very little those of us on the outside can do to discourage a guy like Urlacher from lying about his health. He plays in a league where there are benefits to lying about health. Seau was never diagnosed with a concussion during his playing career.
Kids, who aren't earning an NFL paycheck, shouldn't be making the same bargain. Let's give them and their parents the facts to make informed decisions about the long-term impact of playing and, if necessary, use those findings to change the rules of football to make it safer.