By all accounts, Tiaina “Junior” Seau was an extraordinary professional athlete. Seau’s career in the National Football League (“NFL”) spanned two decades as he battled furiously as a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and the New England Patriots. His performance on the field of play was exceptional; he was selected to the Pro Bowl twelve times and will most certainly be voted into the NFL Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2015. Despite Seau’s unparalleled career, athletic accomplishments, and financial rewards, he committed suicide on May 2, 2012, at the age of 43, just two years after his retirement from professional football. While newspaper accounts in the immediate aftermath of Seau’s suicide recounted an impulsive man who became disconnected, volatile, and erratic following his retirement from the NFL, his family speculated that this erratic behavior and disconnectedness were uncharacteristic of the man that befriended thousands, and was unfailingly committed to representing the Seau name with honor. Upon his suicide, some speculated that repeated concussive head trauma and brain disease led to Seau’s devolving behavioral changes and ultimate suicide.
During Seau’s twenty-year NFL career, he was never diagnosed with a concussion, nor did he miss a game because of concussion-like symptoms. This single fact alone is stunning because following Seau’s suicide, the National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted neutral/blind examinations of his brain tissue and found widespread evidence of “chronic traumatic encephalopathy [(“C.T.E.”)], a degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head.” According to reports, Seau had privately complained that in the final five or six years of his life, he endured a headache that never relented. Indeed, at age forty three, Junior Seau’s brain was found to contain “abnormal, small clusters called neurofibrillary tangles of protein known as tau” which are found “in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive neurological disorders.” Junior Seau was afflicted with late-stage chronic brain disease when he committed suicide.
Emerging medical evidence confirms that Seau is not alone. Recent studies conducted by teams of researchers led by both Dr. Julian Bailes at West Virginia University and Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University have uncovered jarring evidence that an overwhelming percentage of former NFL players, those who have allowed their brains to be autopsied and studied, are afflicted with C.T.E. The issue of brain disease and traumatic head injury has become so clamorous, that President Barack Obama recently speculated that if he had a son, he would most likely not let that son play tackle football. To that end, the NFL and the sport of American football seem to be quickly approaching a crossroads. A strong probability exists that many of the athletes that have played tackle football, at all levels, but particularly those that played for many years, are at some level of risk of serious brain disease. Questions abound.
This article seeks to answer a few of those questions. Will American football continue its meteoric rise in popularity as a cultural phenomenon in the United States as more is learned about the damage that its athletes are enduring? Did the NFL incur liability by ignoring and actively discounting the seriousness of head trauma to thousands of athletes that played in the league, as alleged by a class of former players currently suing the NFL for damages (including the Seau family)? Will a player of Junior Seau’s magnitude bring the kind of attention to traumatic head injuries in football that will require determined action by pee-wee, middle school, high school, college and professional football organizations to protect its players? Can American football continue in its trajectory of rising popularity or will it eventually decline in relevance and become a relative afterthought, much like boxing or horseracing, because of its insidious dangers.
andré douglas pond cummings, Junior Seau, Head Trauma, and the NFL's Concussion Problem, 2 Miss. Sports L. Rev. 45 (2013).