At its core, the NFL draft is an exercise that anyone who has ever picked sides on a playground is familiar with. Of course, the TV cameras, raucous fans at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and hulking athletes turned into instant millionaires bring a little more glitz to the affair.
This week, a more uncomfortable facet of the NFL bubbled back to the surface with the apparent suicide of Junior Seau, a former all-star linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. He was 43.
It’s striking and perfectly natural that many familiar with the NFL quickly tied Seau’s apparent self-inflicted gunshot to his chest to the suicides of other former pro football players. In 2011, Dave Duerson, an 11-year NFL veteran, took his own life after battling a brain injury caused by repeated blows to the head. Duerson’s suicide note made clear he shot himself in the chest because he wanted his damaged brain to be studied. Duerson was 50.
And there are others. Late last month, Ray Easterling, a former Atlanta Falcon who had sued the NFL over its treatment of players with concussion-related injuries, took his own life; he was 62. Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagle, and Terry Long, a former Pittsburgh Steeler, both killed themselves last decade after suffering from brain injuries. Waters was 44 and Long was 45.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the proper name for the brain disease that afflicted Duerson and so many others. It can lead to loss of motor skills and depression.
As the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell put it when considering suicides among former NFL players, these “were men with aching knees and backs and hands, from all those years of playing football. But their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.”
We don’t know if Seau suffered from the same ailment that ended the lives of so many ex-NFLers, broken and sad men who never saw their 65th birthdays. We do know that looming over the league is a potential legal, financial and marketing nightmare. One that must be addressed more aggressively to make sure the top draft picks of today aren’t the sad obituaries of 25 years from now.