SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 17: Linebacker Junior Seau #55 of the San Diego Chargers stands on the field before the NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Qualcomm Stadium on November 17, 2002 in San Diego, California. According to reports May 2, 2012, Seau, 43, was found dead in his home in Oceanside, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
This isn't a Junior Seau retrospective. I missed the boat on Junior Seau retrospectives by about twelve days. This is a reflection, an admittance of hypocrisy, and a pledge.
People do very strange things in the wake of a suicide. I attribute this to the fact that suicides are usually an unexpected act. People who commit suicide rarely gather evidence, consult friends and family, and still decide that ending their own life is the right option. Suicide is a solitary, if not selfish, decision. And when we find out someone we know has made this ultimate decision, we have an equally selfish reaction: why couldn't they have told me, why wouldn't they let me help? How dare they not share their pain with me? And we feel guilty. But that guilt is selfish as well. We feel that guilt because our lack of empathy has just been aggressively thrown in our face. It's that lack of empathy, and a subsequent sense of entitlement, that has bred our current culture of sports fandom. It's what drove Junior Seau to make the decision he made. And it needs to change, before it gets worse.
The phrase "sanctity of the game" gets tossed around anytime scandal invades the sports world. Steroids violate the "sanctity of the game"; recruiting agents and handlers violate the "sanctity of the game"; prima donna athletes and holdouts violate the "sanctity of the game". But the "sanctity of the game" has been non-existant ever since someone discovered that you could pay the best guys to play on your team, and charge admission to spectators. At the risk of vaulting into the lead of the ATQ Curmudgeon of the Year contest, I believe the "sanctity of the game" is friendship, teamwork, and showing grace in the face of victory or defeat. Once money got involved, all that went out the window. Money beget competition, which beget rivalry, which sullied pride, which inflated competition, which negatively influenced attitudes, which furthered both rivalry and competition, which beget performance enhancers and free agency, which beget a need for negotiation and influence, which crept into adolescence. And we have no one to blame but ourselves, for enabling the culture by gleefully handing over dollar after dollar. $2000 for a trip to the national championship game, $200 for a jersey, $45 for a couple hot dogs, a beer, and some popcorn, and what did you get? Not a damn thing except a really expensive shirt, and indigestion. Even if your team won, the game had absolutely no effect on your life. None.
Football combines two very dangerous components: head injury, and an addiction to competition. The addiction comes from years and years of professional sports telling us that the best players are the winners, the superstars are the ones who live and breathe the game every waking second of their lives. Every boy, and many a girl, plays out the sports hero fantasy as a kid. 3-2 count, bottom of the ninth, Game 7. Five seconds left, team down by 1, ball in your hands. Thousands of buzzer beaters swishing through in thousands of driveways and schoolyards. It breeds a dream, that one day, you could really be the hero. For professional athletes, that dream is an obsession. It's the obsession that brought Tiger Woods to hang Jack Nicklaus' records on his wall as a kid, the obsession that caused Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to turn themselves into walking chemistry labs in pursuit of accolades and the immortal career. And it's the obsession that Junior Seau could never escape. Seau reached two Super Bowls, and both times left the field with the other team doing the celebrating. He was an intense competitor, one who would play through injury and do anything within his power to help his team win. But he never captured the ultimate prize in his arena. Combine that with a lifetime of brain trauma, and the picture begins to come into focus.
The idea that modern sport has ulterior motives is one that I can live with; it's the nature of business, and if the alternative is no sports at all, then I choose a flawed, flawed world of sports. But the idea that athletes are out there slowly killing themselves for my entertainment is one that makes me uneasy. Head trauma in football has already been linked to Alzheimer's and dementia, Lou Gehrig's disease, and depression, and the sport is only getting faster and more violent. I don't like watching TJ Ward's hit on OK State QB Zac Robinson because my mind wanders, to the land where that hit is an inch higher, lower, or at a different angle, and Robinson ends up seriously hurt, or worse. Shouldn't the careers of Eric LeGrand, Kevin Everett, or Darryl Stingley give pause to anyone considering a football career, or raise questions to the society that champions the hardest hitters? The NFL claims to have safety as a priority, but the sport itself is unsafe, and fixing it involves making the game less exciting, and subsequently less marketable. Less exciting and less marketable means less money. And I can guarantee you, NFL owners are more concerned about the bottom line than the long-term health of their employees. And as long as players are willing to make the sacrifice, and fans are willing to watch the carnage, the game won't change. A player will die on the field due to a hit at some point in the future, and the game still won't change. Why change the product if people will just keep buying a repackaged version of the same thing?
The change has to come from the fans. Fans need to make it clear that we see athletes as people, rather than statistics. We need to be against dirty play, dirty money, and dirty politics. We need to teach our kids the right way to do things. We need to be more okay with losing. And we need to make it clear to athletes: your life is more important than this game. Because Junior Seau gave his life for football. Was that a good enough reason?