Junior Seau was undeniably a champion. But did he sacrifice his brain, and ultimately his life, for his sport? Did he snap because of brain injuries suffered on the field, as many are already saying? And does the NFL bear any of the responsibility?
I have long despised football because it is nothing more than a violent game of rich white man chess, a sick means of causing brain damage to its unsuspecting pawns, as our nation’s richest executives idly decide move after move from the comfort of their sky boxes. When my father was in a nursing home a few years ago, I befriended a young black man in a wheelchair who lived down the hall. Not yet 40, the man was barely able to speak or move, and his head was covered in wandering Frankenstein tracks left from several brain surgeries. As I got to know him, the strong, brave man and his devoted girlfriend explained that he had been a star football player at the University of Maryland. He had taken a lot of hits, and while still a teenager, he started having strokes. Over time, he lost all his physical abilities, as well as much of his mental capacity. He had tried to sue the school, the state, his insurance company - but without the fees to cover attorneys, he got nowhere. He wasn’t sure how long he would be able to get professional care, and he had no other option. I almost cried when it took him a minute to tell me, “I wish I’d never picked up a football.”
When I heard about Seau’s suicide today, I also thought of the movie Jerry Maguire. When the film came out, I was practically ostracized for despising it. Everyone thought I was just participating in some hipster backlash, but I truly could not stand that film or its message. Nevermind the tragic “love” story, wherein Tom Cruise’s sports agent never, for one second, gives a shit about Renee Zellweger’s dumpy secretary; my real problem with the story is that it defies the pretense it sets out in its own first act. The movie begins with a football player being seriously injured, sparking Jerry’s change of heart. But, by the end of the two hours we all just wasted, Maguire has settled for a wife he will soon cheat on and has completely changed back into the same heartless, selfish, fake prick he was at the beginning. To confirm that this is all hunky-dory, we have the climactic collision of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character on the field. There is a long, tense silence after Cuba takes a devastating blow… Then he’s up! AND DOING FLIPS!! In real life, this player, already so used and abused by his employers and other bloodsuckers, would be paralyzed, or have brain damage, or go crazy. Jerry Maguire’s precious little ending only perpetuates the American belief that our weekend pastime is worth the lives of men who have no means of success other than sacrificing themselves to entertain our sick, voyeuristic need to watch human destruction in real time. But I digress….
If anything comes from Junior Seau’s suicide (which, to be fair, might have been caused by something other than his ongoing traumatic injuries - though the brain scans of several other football players, wrestlers and boxers who have committed suicide tell us this is not likely), I can only hope that there is some kind of reform in his industry. As long as the NFL is going to play foosball with their players, constantly tossing out broken pieces and replacing them with fresh bodies, they need to monitor the health of their players and provide mental support throughout their lives. It is the least they could do in exchange for all that these men and their families give up in the name of the game.