The self-inflicted death of legendary NFL linebacker Junior Seau sent a shockwave throughout the world of sports last week.
The local community is aware of Seau because he was an amazingly impactful roving defensive powerhouse for USC from 1987 to 1989. Seau played professional football for 20 years for the Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots and was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection. His flamboyant playing style and jolting hits electrified fans for years. He was 43 years old.
This is a time for grief and remembrance. Seau was an integral part of the San Diego community and dedicated time and effort to his charitable foundation. He continually helped the USC athletic department. He cultivated friendships and followers everywhere he went. His family needs prayers and support.
Normally, speculation as to causation would be premature, but these are not normal times. The spectre of head injuries and the disastrous lifetime ramifications call for emphatic action.
It is also time to acknowledge the challenging adjustment process that leaving sports presents for an athlete. Seau had the structure and stability of a football program since he was a young boy. He knew when he had to work out, when he had to play and when he could take a vacation.
He had the camaraderie of the locker room, surrounded by other players. He had the steady adrenaline rush that comes from playing. And then it all ended.
Even with financial security, community respect, children and reasonable second career plans, retired players can become depressed. He undoubtedly had multiple concussion events playing with reckless abandon in the middle of a defense that produces steady auto accident level collisions. There was little focus on all this steady buffeting of the head in his era, unless a player was lying unconscious and carted off the field. But the damage accumulated, and the problem will get worse with the accelerating physics of the hit.
Bigger, stronger bodies are moving at unprecedented speed on football fields.
There is a largely undiagnosed health epidemic that has surrounded contact sports at the youth, high school, collegiate and professional level, and it is a ticking time bomb. For many years a veil of denial has obscured the reality of what the long-term impact of multiple concussions portend.
I first became concerned in the late '80s and '90s when I represented half the starting quarterbacks in the National Football League. As I went with clients like Troy Aikman and Steve Young to post-concussion visits with neurologists, there were too many unanswered questions.
How many head injuries is too many? What are the long term ramifications? How long should a player sit out after suffering the hit? Physicians had few concrete answers, the brain was the last frontier of medical research. I finally decided that I could not in good conscience represent players in a sport that we intuitively knew could cause devastating consequences to the mental faculties of athletes, without becoming an active crusader to raise awareness of the danger. I felt like an "enabler" facilitating a "meat grinder" career.
In the '90s we held three concussion conferences in Newport Beach with the leading neurologists, helmet manufacturers and playing surface representatives. We issued a white paper calling for a standardized regimen of diagnosis and "return-to-play protocols." We urged better helmetry and protective devices. We asked for a neurologist to be put on the sideline and that the head and neck be banned from blocking and tackling.
Not much changed.
The players themselves were in a state of denial concerning physical health. They had been taught from Pop Warner on to ignore pain, hide injury so as to not lose their starting position or jeopardize their status on the team. They didn't want to be known as "training-room" players and be stigmatized and isolated from their peers. They were young men and athletes, two categories that viewed long-term health as an abstraction. The most critical priority for them was the next play. And retired athletes were stoic and didn't talk about impaired memory or depression to younger players. In some cases, because concussion is not visible like a leg injury, they may not have known.
In conjunction with the Los Angeles-based Concussion Institute, we helped facilitate another series of Concussion Seminars seven years ago. This time there was concrete data presented by researchers such as Dr. Julian Bailes, Dr. Robert Cantu, Kevin Gusciewicz and Dr. Robert Hovda that seemed to indicate that three was the "magic number."
Three or more concussions apparently raised exponentially the post-career risk of dementia, Parkinson's and depression. A pattern developed in which the repetitive head injuries produced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, permanent brain damage. Players such as the Bears' Dave Duerson developed depression. Often loss of job and family would occur. And in an increasing number of cases, suicide.
To their credit, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL responded by convening a physician's conference. They issued a whistle blower edict, which urged players to report other impaired players. And they adopted baseline testing, developed by Dr. Mark Lovell. A cognitive test is given prior to a season and in the case of concussion, is followed by a second test.
This is something that every parent should insist on for their "collision sport" children. Credit the parents of football players and the administration at Newport Harbor High School for initiating this testing. Pro football may be most visible, but the risk is present in many other sports and at the collegiate, high school and youth levels. The adolescent brain may take three times as long to recover and it is still in formation.
The physics of collision have changed — bigger, stronger, faster athletes colliding with a stationary object. And so the problem will accelerate, not diminish. The simple act of offensive and defensive lineman colliding thousands of times produces a low-level concussive event. What will the cumulative effect of the injury mean for athletes in their 40s and 50s?
I knew Seau the day he and his massive Samoan friends partied back stage as he was drafted in New York City. The stage was shaking and the commotion could be heard throughout Madison Square Gardens. I represented him for a time. He came up to play in a charity golf tournament — the Toshiba Seniors Classic at Newport Beach Country Club. Spectators were forced to scramble when his powerful but erratic drives landed in the gallery.
I love professional football and don't want to destroy the game, but I love the individuals who play them more.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun