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Football: America's dangerous game

We may never know exactly why Junior Seau died, of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, at his home in San Diego on May 2. Suicide is commonly the result of depression, and perhaps Mr. Seau had a mood disorder that had nothing to do with his 20-year football career in which he played hundreds of games, made thousands of tackles, and hit — was hit — many more times than that.

On the other hand, a career like Mr. Seau's — a linebacker with a reputation as a hard hitter and a "warrior" on virtually every defensive play, using his body as a weapon, and "playing hurt" — almost certainly included dozens of concussions, whether or not they were reported to his team or to the league. (Published reports suggest that Mr. Seau was never once diagnosed with a concussion, an implausible result.) A recent study at the University of North Carolina showed a threefold increase in depression among NFL retirees who had three or more concussions.

But as Junior Seau's family and friends — and the broader San Diego community, for he was well known as a philanthropist in his hometown — grieve for him, no one can ignore the toll of casualties from recent retirees: Dave Duerson. Ray Easterling. Andre Waters. All known as "fierce" or "ferocious" players who flew to the ball. All players who would "shake off" injuries and couldn't wait to get back in the game. And each dead by his own hand.

Here in Baltimore, we also remember the price paid for greatness on the football field. We recall, for example, John Mackey, the late, great Colts player whose early confrontation with frontotemporal dementia was almost certainly the result of his pro football career.

These men remind us of the price that is paid by athletes who are highly compensated and love the game — but can generally expect orthopedic injuries and even brain damage that is the routine result of playing the sport, and not just the exceptional result of a particularly hard hit to the head, whether penalized or not.

In a way, the recent controversy over bounties paid to members of the New Orleans Saints for "headhunting" (and the story does not stop there; similar bounties were assuredly paid on other teams) has shifted the public conversation away from the real issue. The NFL was right to crack down on Saints coaches and players. But the real threat to players comes from what is legal: from the cumulative effect of full-speed collisions with other players who routinely weight 250-300 pounds and more. And so, while the NFL is right, again, to change its rules to discourage particularly risky plays, to penalize helmet-to-helmet tackles, and to run public-service ads warning about the dangers of concussions, nothing the league has done will change this fundamental fact: Pro football is a direct threat to the life and health of all its participants.

No one associated with pro football can be happy about having the spotlight of public attention swing back to this fact of life. Pro football can be called "America's game" only because it enjoys support that cuts across boundaries of age, race, income and sex. Baltimore grandmothers and their grandchildren can both be spotted wearing Ray Lewis jerseys in a mark of the game's widespread popularity.

Whether intended or not, the NFL's actions on bounties, rule changes and head-to-head hits have soothed public discomfort, at least for a time, about the game as a whole. Pro football is unlikely to go the way of boxing — once America's most popular spectator pastime, now seen by many as a "blood sport" — any time soon. But Junior Seau's death and the deaths of his fellow retirees are reminders of the reality of football that will not stop and cannot be ignored.

Cy Smith is a lawyer in Baltimore with Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. He represented the estate of former Steelers player Mike Webster in the first successful lawsuit against the NFL's pension plan. His email is csmith@zuckerman.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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