Commentary: When will deaths of NFL players stop?

Our 'collective passion' for football makes all of us conspirators in a life-threatening sport

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A gray-haired woman in a green floral dress is screaming the worst moment of her life in front of the entire world. Luisa Seau stands in front of microphones and cameras, on televisions across the country wailing the sometimes incoherent words of every mother's worst nightmare.

"I pray to God," she screams, "please take me, take me and leave my son, but it's too late. Too late."

You might have seen the heartbreaking video already. If you watched television at all Wednesday, or opened up a web browser, it was hard to miss and harder to stomach that Junior Seau, 43 years old, apparently killed himself with a gunshot to the chest.

This is a former NFL Man of the Year not even retired long enough to be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame but leaving behind three children and a line of crying teammates.

Police believe his death was a suicide. If so, Seau is the third former football player to shoot himself to death in the past 15 months, and what might be the most serious issue in sports has a new face that a new generation of fans can remember and some painful questions must now be asked.

How much longer can this go? What's your tolerance for this? How much stamina do you have for the men you cheer today dying tragic and premature deaths in the coming years? How much longer can you be a fan of a sport that appears to be killing its athletes?

Sports are supposed to be an escape from real life. That's part of what makes us love them so much, part of what makes football one of America's most popular forms of entertainment. For three hours every Saturday or Sunday, there is no mortgage payment, no deadline at work, no medical bills.

Only now, those games are themselves a proven source of life's biggest problems and eventually that has to matter longer than it takes to hold a moment of silence and plan a funeral.

If Seau did kill himself, we don't know why, of course. An investigation might help, or it might leave the same haunting questions from the day two years ago he drove his Escalade off a cliff.

Seau told police he fell asleep at the wheel that day and promised his best friends the same. But people who knew him suspected an attempted suicide even back then. Seau had a divorce and failed businesses and the same demons that chase a lot of people -- athletes and otherwise.

So, no. We don't know the most critical answers around a tragic death. We don't know if he had a brain injury, or whether there's a connection between this tragic end and a legendary 20-year pro football career.

But we do know that football leads to concussions, and concussions can lead to depression, and depression can lead to suicide. The pattern is undeniable. We also know this chilling next paragraph to be true:

There is not only precedent for ex-football players killing themselves, but precedent for them doing it with a gunshot to the chest so their brains can be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of brain damage that is related to blows to the head.

Think about that. It's almost as though these former NFL players are teaching each other how to kill themselves without stunting the progress of science to hopefully learn more about an awful trend in which we are all conspirators.

If those last four words make you uncomfortable, well, good. They should. Makes me uncomfortable to write them, but it's the truth. The brutal truth.

Our collective passion for football drives these men to do dangerous things. The money generated by our obsession with football means a lot of powerful people are motivated to keep their sport's life-threatening side effects minimized as long as they can.

Hockey has had some similar problems, you probably know. But that sport's issues with brain injury are rarer than football's and ostensibly easier to fix. Stop in-game fighting and you have a chance at reducing the most serious long-term consequences.

Violence is part of football's DNA, as intricate a part of the sport as the Hail Mary or sweep left. Football leads American sports in killing its own athletes and in a better world it would be past time we accept this as an unfortunate consequence of our entertainment.

No amount of penalties from the Saints' bounty scandal can cover for the fact that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been shamefully and irresponsibly late in recognizing and addressing his sport's dangers.

His recent pushes for an 18-game schedule make him a hypocrite on this, and if he ever mentions it again, he'll lose much of his remaining credibility.

The same moments we cheer so loudly today may very well be contributing to deaths tomorrow and no matter what happens from now on, Goodell's handling of this impossible issue will be a major part of how he is remembered.

One of football's greatest linebackers is dead now, and in the most direct way, he apparently did this to himself by pulling the trigger. But the difficult question the rest of us should now consider more seriously than ever before is how much of a push he got from the violence of the profession millions of us have made so lucrative.

At some point, we football fans have to decide how much we can love a sport that is apparently killing too many of its athletes and this is the part of the column where you're supposed to read some naive plea that things must change.

In a more idealistic world, maybe that would happen. But here in this world, tickets are on sale. A lot of you will be at the games. I will, too.

Steelers


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