It was something of a coincidence. On the same day that the NFL suspended four of its players — one for an entire season — for their roles in trying to purposely hurt players for money, that an ex-player died, suspected of taking his own life.
It's still way too early to say for certain what really drove Junior Seau to take his own life. He may have been battling demons that had nothing to do with football. But if past incidents tell us anything, the sad story that unfolded Thursday had a lot more to do with football than anyone who has ever taken some sort of enjoyment out of the NFL would ever like to admit.
Just last month, former player Ray Easterling took his own life. Last year, it was Dave Duerson who shot himself in the chest, just like Seau. In Duerson's case, he left behind a note asking that his brain be looked at closer following his death, as part of an ongoing study into NFL head injuries and their repercussions even after a player's career is over.
Duerson's brain was found to have evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE for short. According to Boston University, one of the leaders in CTE research, CTE is "a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head."
The BU Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy lists the following as symptoms of CTE: memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.
As mentioned before, it's still too early to know if Seau suffered from CTE, as the only way to diagnose it is to actually get inside of a brain. For the safety of NFL players going forward, we can only hope that the right people are granted access to Seau's brain in an attempt to learn even more about this crippling disorder, a disorder that looks more and more like a serious threat with every untimely death.
Seau's death is an incredibly unfortunate event for the NFL, but at the same time, it could start to really legitimize the league's attempt to change the culture. It's undeniable that the game takes a toll on its players when they're playing and it sure sounds like it's taking an even bigger toll on the players after their playing days are over.
Former Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens is in the process of making a documentary about the problems ex-players continue to have. He spoke with WEEI on Thursday morning about that.
"I went forward during the research and it was incredible," Levens said. "I talked to a couple of guys in their early 40s who already have dementia. I talked to them on the phone and I almost broke down crying."
The dangers of playing professional football (or hockey, or boxing, or whatever, really) are so incredibly real. Professional athletes have gotten constant reminders of this over the past few years, yet, it doesn't sound like it's necessarily getting through to players.
Bountygate by itself is an example of that. However, perhaps just as chilling, is the reaction to the discipline for these types of things.
Take Dolphins running back Reggie Bush for example. He played for the Saints to begin his career, so he knows and is friendly with players like Jonathan Vilma.
"Man these Suspensions are outrageous!" he tweeted. "I'm honestly speechless about how all of this has played out. Something needs to be done about this!!
"I bet you won't find one NFL Player who agrees with these suspensions," read another.
"You want something less physical go watch basketball or baseball! This is what we do! Period! Next thing you know we'll be playing two hand touch football!"
It's becoming more and more obvious every day that a change in the culture is needed more than anything else. Football is a physical game, and it has to be physical to be a good product. But at the same time, there's a fine line between physical and reckless. Bountygate, especially given what we know about head injuries in sports today, is reckless. Reggie Bush's reaction to the suspensions is also reckless.
Bush calls for something to "be done about this," and unfortunately, he's talking about the suspensions, not the game itself. He says you won't find one NFL player that will agree with the suspensions, which gives a chilling look at culture in the NFL as it stands right now.
Bush's stance is only one side of the problem, too. That's not even taking into account the players that are afraid to say "Enough is enough," and instead attempt to downplay the effects of and play through signs of concussions and the like.
The league is taking steps to make things safer for its players. They've continue to do a better job at diagnosing head injuries and keeping players suffering from them off of the field. Suspensions like those handed out in Bountygate prove the NFL isn't messing around.
Even Levens, a player who is listed on a lawsuit against the NFL, admits that the league is doing a better job.
"Yeah, they are doing something about it now, they're heading in the right direction," he said. "With all of the rule changes Roger Goodell is making now, I think that's great. Player safety should be No. 1. I think, as bad as it sounds, Junior Seau committing suicide is going to bring even more awareness."
The league can only do so much, as the way players approach the game needs to change, too. It's not a knock at your manhood to realize you play a dangerous game and should treat it as such. These guys sign up for it, they know what they're getting themselves into, but it doesn't always have to be to these types of extremes.
"It's gotta change," Levens said. "Is it going to look like flag football? Maybe more like flag football than what we're used to seeing in the NFL, but at the end of the day, with what guys are going through right now, it's so worth it."
At some point, current NFL players like Bush will need to start heeding these continued warnings. If they don't Junior Seau's story won't be looked at as a cautionary tale, rather just another chapter in the sad story of the ex-NFL player.