Friday, May 4, 2012

On Junior Seau and smoking

I'm still shocked by the news of Junior Seau's suicide on Wednesday. Seau was well-liked at every step of his career (this anecdote gives you a pretty good idea of why), and his premature death is an unspeakable tragedy, especially to those in his hometown of San Diego. It's even more troubling to learn that Seau followed in the lead of Dave Duerson by shooting himself in the chest, so that his brain could be studied to better learn the impact of head trauma (concussions) on long-term mental health.

Naturally, incidents like the Seau suicide tend to spur many of us into action, in hopes that we can learn some kind of lesson that will help prevent future tragedies. That reaction was evident in the following Twitter post from Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, re-tweeted by Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King:

Smith makes a fair point, but as I replied to him (and King), the information is, for the most part, there--it's just that many players choose to ignore it, because their careers often depend on such ignorance.

Concussion awareness organizations like the Sports Legacy Institute (founded by Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestler whom I knew in college) have existed since the mid-2000s, inspired by a growing body of evidence surrounding head trauma. Their findings have clearly had an impact on the NFL, and the league has tried its best to respond to their recommendations.

To be fair to players like Seau and Smith (not to mention Duerson), their careers began and essentially ended before they could have benefited from the most recent research. But there's no excuse for current players to be engaging in this kind of behavior, given the NFL's new emphasis on preventing serious head injuries:
A four-month look at how the NFL handles concussions in a more tightly controlled environment shows that following the new rules remains extremely arbitrary. Many times, players ignore them. Sometimes, teams do. In other instances, there is a pact between the two to skirt them. 
While NFL teams have enacted smart and thorough mechanisms to help players deal with the dangers of concussions, some have found a way around them by simply waving off doctors on the hits that aren't clearly visible or where the player doesn't lose consciousness. Some are hiding concussion symptoms from doctors, players said in dozens of interviews. 
"In some cases, if you avoid the doctors, you can avoid the concussion exams," one AFC North player said, "and the doctors know you're avoiding them, but let you." 
Said one player, who is also a player representative: "The concussion rules are the best they can be. The league and the union have done a good job protecting players, but the truth remains, players are still hiding concussions, because they want to protect their careers. In some cases, teams know a player is concussed and let it go. Yes, that still happens." 
The NFL and players union might soon respond to holes in the policy by placing independent doctors on the sidelines during games, taking the decision out of the hands of the interested parties: the teams and players. But until then, some players will continue to put themselves at risk by doing whatever they can to stay on the field.
In this regard, I see significant parallels between concussions in the NFL and the smoking of cigarettes.

In this day and age, everyone knows the dangers of smoking, and everyone (at least, everyone in the NFL) knows the dangers of football and concussions. But for various reasons, people continue to light up, just like they continue to buckle up their chinstraps and take the field. Simply put, some people just don't care about the risks--they want the rewards. That's why people continue to take steroids, and it's also why people continue to invest in the stock market (though that's probably a topic best left for another day).

The only way this dynamic will change is if people stop watching football because of incidents like the Seau suicide, whether as a means of protest or simply out of disgust. Until that day comes, the rewards of an NFL career will continue to be so great (particularly for uneducated or under-educated kids from lower class families) that many players will simply overlook the risks, hoping that maybe they'll be one of the lucky ones.

Simply knowing about the risks isn't enough to prevent future tragedies like the Junior Seau story--knowing is indeed half the battle, but that still leaves the other half. We as a society need to actually respond to those risks in a way that affects future behavior. Otherwise, we'll be doomed to learn nothing from the Seau tragedy, just as many of us learned nothing from millions of smoking-related deaths around the world over the past few decades.

In a sense, maybe that's okay. NFL players are consenting adults, and if they choose to put themselves in harm's way despite knowing the risks, then that's certainly their choice. But we shouldn't pretend that they don't know better, because by now, they absolutely do. If nothing else, Junior Seau's death has at least assured us of that much. Hopefully, it will do even more.

[CBS Sports]

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