UT San Diego
When Junior Seau killed himself, he also wounded football. He put a familiar face on the game’s lingering perils and set off alarms about its long-term outlook. He caused risk-averse parents to recoil and risk-management experts to recalculate.
Seau’s suicide has forced football to confront its own mortality.
“Junior just hits home with so many people,” said Jerry Schniepp, the San Diego section’s CIF commissioner. “He was so easy to relate to and was such a positive, successful, happy person, to see this happen to him sure gives you pause, makes you question.
“For a parent looking at the sport, it definitely raises some serious concerns.”
America’s most popular sport is in no immediate danger of extinction, not even with 1,600 former players suing the NFL for “intentional and negligent misconduct” in its treatment of head trauma. Yet as medicine improves its grasp on the toll football takes and insurance companies grow more leery of their liability at all levels, numerous economists, neurologists and administrators envision a rocky reckoning.
“I think it’s a legitimate fear,” Schniepp said. “Football insurance is expensive right now and it could be prohibitive for some kids and families. Projecting it down the road, it potentially is dangerous for football.”
“Certainly, we’re concerned for football,” said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, the nation’s largest youth football program. “If you really step back and look at it, football was almost outlawed in the early 1900s.”
That the game endured and ultimately flourished can be traced to a White House meeting held Oct. 9, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt summoned representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to demand reforms of a game that had grown so dangerous 18 college players would die that year alone.
What followed were rules changes that permitted the forward pass, required a minimum number of players to be positioned on the line of scrimmage and outlawed gang tackling and bunched formations such as the flying wedge, in which players could link arms to create a more lethal point of attack.
More than a century since Roosevelt wielded his big stick to prod football toward meaningful safety measures, the game has arrived at another health-conscious crossroads with Seau as its latest and highest-profile symbol.
Whether Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease characterized by mood swings, memory loss and depression, will not be known until his brain can be studied. Still, the tragic trend of NFL players taking their own lives would suggest that two decades of ferocious tackling amounts to Russian roulette with an overmatched helmet.
“I’m no scientist, but I don’t have to be,” former Pro Bowl lineman Lomas Brown told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Something’s not right here. This can’t be some random coincidence.”
The pattern has grown so pronounced and so ominous that economics professors Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier have interpreted the long-term implications of the concussion crisis as football’s doomsday scenario. Three months ago, they published an essay on ESPN’s “Grantland” website called, “What Would The End of Football Look Like?”
“The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits,” they wrote. “Pre-collegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits.”
Authors Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer have made similar points in their recent writings. Even Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, whose playing career was cut short by concussions, says football’s long-term viability “is somewhat in question as far as what this game is going to look like 20 years from now.”
Last year, the NFL modified its kickoff rules in an effort to reduce the dangers of football’s most injury-prone play. Eventually, safety concerns could cause football administrators at different levels to consider eliminating the high-impact three-point stance and/or limiting the amount of contact individual players can absorb. If those ideas sound extreme, so did the forward pass in 1905.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s aggressive stance on player safety, most recently manifest in the sanctions he imposed on the New Orleans Saints, may be motivated in part by a desire to appear vigilant in the face of litigation that potentially could cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
“For decades, the NFL has known of the well-established causal connection between repeated head trauma and the later development of neurological impairments and other brain injuries,” alleges the complaint filed in the name of former NFL cornerback Bernie Parrish. “Yet the NFL … not only ignored this connection, but actively and fraudulently concealed it from its players …”
San Diego attorney Robert J. Francavilla, who helped negotiate a $4.4 million head injury settlement for Mission Hills High linebacker Scott Eveland in March, says the Parrish suit now includes 1,600 plaintiffs and provided a list of 85 former Chargers players who could be party to a class action (most notably, five-time Pro Bowl receiver Anthony Miller). Potential damages, Francavilla said, could exceed $1 billion.
“Do I think football will ever go away?” Francavilla asked. “Of course not … but there are ways to make it safer.”
It’s almost impossible to play football without recognizing its risk, and there is no shortage of players eager to accept those risks in return for the game’s many rewards. The central question posed by the Parrish suit is whether the NFL was aware of additional risks that it misrepresented.
Though the specific reasons behind Seau’s suicide may never be known, its shock value underscores how poorly football’s risks are understood even now.
“I think the whole concussion discussion has increasingly moved to the forefront in the last few years,” Schniepp said. “There are new policies in place for handling head injuries in high school football where it’s the responsibility of a lot of people.
“With Junior’s situation, I think (the discussion) will jump further ahead really quickly.”
Parents will demand answers. Players will need permission. Administrators must look at liability. Insurance companies must consider claims.
High school students typically pay about $200 per year for football-specific insurance — roughly twice as much as they do for other sports — and those costs escalate as a player grows older and the hits get harder. The 2011-12 premium on San Diego State’s athletic injury policy, which covers all 18 of the school’s varsity sports teams, cost $380,774 and maxes out at $90,000 per injury. (Amounts in excess of that are insured by the NCAA.)
Those costs may well rise as football’s long-term risks become better understood. If Junior Seau’s death can serve a positive purpose, it is that it should prompt further analysis and deeper discussion — much as Ken Caminiti’s steroids confession did.
“I think it’s going to lead to quicker, extensive studies,” Schniepp said. “I think it’s opening that door, so we have to find the answers so we can give people full information.