Junior Seau, the ex-NFL linebacker who committed suicide at the age of 43 last May, is not the first ex-football player to show evidence of a degenerative brain disease, and he almost certainly won’t be the last. But he is probably the most prominent ex-player to date to have suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy; and the release of news about his condition at the height of the NFL playoff season should put added focus on the issue of player safety, which would be welcome.
The NFL has taken several steps recently to address the long-term health consequences associated with wear-and-tear-type injuries, as well as head injuries. It has changed the rules to prohibit the nastiest types of hits, instructed referees to blow whistles more quickly, commissioned helmet redesigns and given tens of millions of dollars for medical research.
It’s impossible to tell how much impact these relatively recent changes will have, since the problems are presumably caused by an accumulation of injuries over several years’ time. But the link between repeated head trauma and degenerative brain disease seems undeniable — based not just on the autopsy on Seau (who played 20 years, most of them before any of the above changes were implemented) but on more than a dozen other NFL players with similar Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, including at least three who committed suicide.
Football is too much a part of American culture to be outlawed, and because it is inherently a violent contact sport there’s only so much tinkering that can be done to protect participants. The NFL (and football organizations at all levels, really) should continue to make tweaks in this vein, though — and to make sure the players understand the risks going in.
Finally, the league owes it to the players to take care of them when they’re finished, with adequate health benefits and pensions.