Discussion of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Warranted After Junior Seau Death

By Ryan Wooden

For 20 years, Junior Seau made a lucrative living out of violently colliding with people. Wednesday, Seau passed away due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 43 years old.

Every single day, we get closer and closer to a more complete understanding of the true dangers of this disturbingly destructive relationship between football and the human brain. The NFL is in the process of completely revolutionizing the way the game is played in an effort to protect their greatest entity, the players, but the reality is that it’s tough to create an atmosphere that embraces change after 80 years of doing things a certain way.

There is no guarantee that Junior Seau’s apparent depression stemmed directly from the type of brain trauma potentially sustained during a 20-year career playing perhaps the most violent position football has to offer, although it’s not a large leap to assume considering he chose to leave his brain intact. However, regardless of the motives that led to the tragic death of Junior Seau, this is a discussion worth having.

People need to understand that by re-examining the way this game is played, we’re not taking some far-left political stance designed to eliminate the physicality that makes the game entertaining, we’re trying to save the lives of people who spend long careers like Seau smashing their heads into other people’s heads. Guys like former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster who were irreparably damaged by head trauma in football.

Webster was a nine-time Pro Bowler, and as chronicled in this 2009 piece in GQ about brain trauma in football, his career after football was mysterious. Basically, he lost his mind:

“His life after football had been mysterious and tragic, and on the news they were going on and on about it. What had happened to him? How does a guy go from four Super Bowl rings to…pissing in his own oven and squirting Super Glue on his rotting teeth? Mike Webster bought himself a Taser gun, used that on himself to treat his back pain, would zap himself into unconsciousness just to get some sleep. Mike Webster lost all his money, or maybe gave it away. He forgot. A lot of lawsuits. Mike Webster forgot how to eat, too. Soon Mike Webster was homeless, living in a truck, one of its windows replaced with a garbage bag and tape.”

That GQ piece was one of the definitive wake-up calls in the history of professional sports. It outlined the effects of repetitive blows to the head. Essentially, a large percentage of the people who played football for extended periods of time would accumulate tau proteins in the brain.

Those tau proteins were the brain’s equivalent of what happened when you didn’t change the oil in your car regularly. Eventually that sludge would kill brain cells responsible for regulating mood and emotion, and inevitably it would impair motor skills. Dr. Ben Omalu, who conducted the autopsy on Webster when he died in 2002, titled the condition associated with tau protein accumulation “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy”, or CTE.

Small dissected slides of Webster’s brain showed noticeable brown and red splotches. The tau proteins were literally visible. Omalu detailed his findings only to have his work criticized by NFL doctors; however, there was no doubt in Omalu’s mind — and the mind of several others — that this was a football related brain injury.

Follow up studies on Omalu’s work showed that a retired NFL player was developing Alzheimer’s 37% more frequently than the average male. It was an alarming number. One that  added severe consequence to the already assumed risks of playing football.

We’ve always associated certain risks with this game, but degenerative brain disease wasn’t supposed to be a likelihood. That’s why it’s absurd to think that you can be dismissive of new safety precautions regarding player safety. People are dying.

Around the same time that Junior Seau was contemplating whether or not to pull the trigger and end whatever pain and suffering he felt was too much to bear, players from around the league were lashing out against the NFL’s punishment of players who willingly participated in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. How can you possibly question punishing players who intentionally sought to injure colleagues in a game that already has such inherent danger?

We have absolutely no idea if Junior Seau was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or if other factors led to his suicide, but it won’t surprise anyone if it were the case. His brain will obviously be meticulously inspected for signs of repeated trauma and the buildup of tau proteins associated with degenerative brain disease, but now that we’ve got the public’s attention this is as good a time as any to discuss how real this problem is.

Maybe Seau shows no sign of this disease whatsoever, but you can be certain that some former football player out there does. And that person is struggling to make cognitive decisions between right and wrong — they’re struggling to survive in this new post-football world.

The particular circumstances surrounding Junior Seau’s death are eerily similar to the death of Duerson. In February of 2011, Duerson shot and killed himself after a history with mental illness. Duerson had been complaining to his family and doctors about his deteriorating mental health for years and, like Seau, shot himself in the chest in order to preserve his brain for further study.

Later, it was found that Duerson did indeed have CTE.

In light of Seau’s self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, now is probably as good a time as ever to discuss the seriousness of this issue at greater lengths. Something simply has to be done.

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