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Junior Seau tragedy shakes NFL, intensifies concern about head injuries

Former linebacker's apparent suicide, three years after retiring, renews denunciations of football's culture of toughness and the incidence of head injuries. Junior Seau had sustained multiple concussions, friends and family say.

By Contributor / May 3, 2012

Junior Seau as a New England Patriots linebacker smiles during NFL football training camp in Foxborough, Mass., in this July 2007 file photo.

Winslow Townson/AP/File


Junior Seau’s death from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound has shaken the NFL to its core, sending to fever pitch the ever-louder debate about player safety and the long-term ill effects of playing pro football.

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The timing is hard to ignore. The shocking news of the former linebacker's apparent suicide broke Wednesday just hours after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued harsh suspensions to four NFL defenders for their roles in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, in which defenders were paid for dealing game-ending hits to opposing players. Reggie Bush was among the players who took to Twitter to denounce the severity of the suspensions and to lambast Goodell for trying to turn football into a wimpier sport, and then to mourn Seau a few minutes later.

According to some, the culture of toughness that led to the Saints’ punishments (and the player backlash) may have been Seau’s undoing.

His death is the latest of several NFL veteran suicides in recent years. In February 2011, ex-defensive back Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest, leaving a note requesting that his brain be donated to the Boston University School of Medicine for research. Those who conducted the examinations said head injuries he had sustained during his time in the NFL resulted in significant, long-term brain damage. Just last month, retired safety Ray Easterling committed suicide, amid reports that he had experienced depression, insomnia, and memory loss toward the end of his life. Easterling was a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by a large group of former players against the NFL for failing to protect them from head injuries. Nearly 1,000 ex-NFL players have been named as plaintiffs in such suits against the league.

Seau’s end, though, hits the NFL especially hard, according to Mike Tanier, staff writer of Football Outsiders. A definite future Hall of Famer, Seau was one of the best defenders ever to play the game, and he capped off his two-decade playing career very recently, in 2009.

“This one is going to be more real to recent players,” Mr. Tanier says. “I hope this reaffirms that the tough-guy rhetoric needs to be gone. This is about something dangerous. These things should change the culture, and the conduct on the field.”

During his playing days, Seau was never sidelined for a head injury. But family and friends have stated that he sustained multiple concussions during his career. "Of course he had,” ex-wife Gina Seau told ESPN. “He always bounced back and kept on playing, He's a warrior. That didn't stop him. I don't know what football player hasn't. It's not ballet. It's part of the game."

According to Tanier, it’s a part of the game that was all but ignored until recently. “The change in the concussion mentality occurred in the last few years, across sports,” he says. “[Seau’s] glory days were 1992 to 2000. A player in the '90s who took time off for concussions was going to get criticism from teammates, coaches, owners, fans, talk radio.” 


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