Commentary

Reflecting on football, Junior Seau

Updated: May 4, 2012, 1:31 AM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

I love you.

Those very well could have been the last three words Junior Seau said to three of his children and ex-wife, Gina, before dying of a gunshot wound to the chest on Wednesday.

Police indicated the injury may have been self-inflicted.

Some fans are wondering if it was football-inflicted.

Many owners, coaches and players are praying it is not.

I love you.

Many people don't get the chance to say that to their loved ones shortly before dying … life is too busy, death, too unpredictable. All of which makes the timing of Seau's text message to his family all the more troubling.

[+] EnlargeJunior Seau
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJunior Seau had 1,526 tackles, 56.5 sacks and 18 interceptions in 268 games over 20 years in the NFL.

Unsettling.

In two decades of playing in the NFL, including 12 Pro Bowl seasons, Seau never suffered a concussion -- officially.

However, I think the words of Gina Seau sum up the feelings many of us have:

"Of course he had. He always bounced back and kept on playing," she said, according to The Associated Press. "He's a warrior. That didn't stop him. I don't know what football player hasn't. It's not ballet. It's part of the game."

Which brings me to this nagging question: Why do we still watch? And as a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, I am included myself in that "we."

Yes, it's a free country, and the men who play are free to make the decisions they believe are best for themselves and their families. But at the risk of nibbling on the hand that feeds me -- and of offending my friends who have either played or still are playing the game -- I have to ask: Why are we as a nation so addicted to watching these incredibly strong and fast men push, tackle and in some cases punish one another to a much faster death?

The average life expectancy of an American male is about 75.

The average life expectancy of a retired NFL player is 53-59.

And yet, we keep watching, like first century spectators at the Colosseum.

The Super Bowl is among the most watched programs in television history. This past season, 37 games attracted more than 20 million viewers each. The two most popular sports on television are NFL and college football games. One of the highest-rated shows on ESPN each year has been the NFL draft, and that's just talking about football.

Although it is irresponsible, given the incomplete information available, to say Seau's tragedy is a result of football, you'd have to be somewhat of an idiot not to at least consider the possibility. There is just way too much information out there about other former players' suicides and subsequent discovery of brain damage.

These aren't the "he got the wind knocked out of him" or "he got his bell rung" days of the 1980s and '90s. Science has provided us with a new vocabulary, and we are now equipped with phrases such as "grade 3 concussion" and "chronic traumatic encephalopathy." We could claim ignorance before, but now we know better.

Yet our appetite for this destruction has only increased.

Last year a Harris poll found that 31 percent of adults who follow more than one sport named the NFL as their favorite. This year that number was up to 36 percent. And with the de facto face of the game, Peyton Manning, playing in a new city and curiosity surrounding a pair of big-name rookie quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and RG3, it's hard to imagine that number declining any time soon.

Even if Seau's brain is donated to science and we learn he, too, suffered from CTE. Again, we don't know whether that is the case. But we also don't know that it's not … and that should warrant pause.

We've all seen players -- from high school on through the pros -- walk on the field and be taken off on a stretcher, never to walk again. We've heard the stories about players -- from high school to the pros -- literally dropping dead after practice. We know sometimes players -- from high school to the pros -- literally drop dead during practice.

Their numbers become tributes written on shoes.

Their initials, stitched to a patch.

Their tragedies, added to the growing list of tragedies that not only speak to the dangers surrounding this game but also to our collective resistance to making the kind of changes necessary to make it safer. Resistance such as widening the field, so speed is a greater asset than size and bulk, or pushing through this ridiculous debate between the league and the union over the procedure for HGH blood tests (or any future performance enhancer, for that matter).

But as Gina Seau said, this is not ballet.

This is football.

And getting hit -- hard -- is not a small part of the game. It is the game. It's the part we secretly love the most. It's the part that may have led to the premature death of the charismatic and widely loved Junior Seau.

Maybe.

We don't know for sure because we don't have all the facts.

But we do have enough facts to warrant some serious soul-searching.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine