clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The New Scrum: Junior Seau, Football's Crisis in Confidence and the Lessons We Have to Remember

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Getty Images

Why else would he shoot himself in the chest?

When the first reports of Junior Seau's suicide were confirmed and some raised the very valid point that Seau had never officially been diagnosed with a concussion, I kept going back to that question. After all, women who commit suicide are statistically less likely to shoot themselves in the head, for reasons that are still a matter of debate. But there was only one instance that I had heard of where a man intentionally avoided shooting himself in the head: David Duerson, a former defensive back for the Bears who requested at least twice in the hours before his death that his brain be donated to science.

The apparent reason was that Duerson suspected he had, and was later confirmed to have, chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a disease caused by concussions that withers the mind and leads to violent mood swings and dementia and depression that can be fatal.

So it wasn't really a shock when Seau's ex-wife said that the great former player had suffered concussions: "Of course he had. ... I don't know what football player hasn't. It's not ballet. It's part of the game."

I had already come to the same tentative conclusion in my mind: Of course he had.

Why else would he shoot himself in the chest?

It was just a matter of time before we found ourselves here, before the string of broken brains and tragically short lives wound its way to a player whom everyone with even a passing familiarity with the game would recognize. Sure, there had been players like Duerson, who won a Super Bowl each with the Bears and the Giants, and Lou Creekmur, a Hall of Famer and eight-time Pro Bowler who died from dementia in 2009.

But these were older names when they had died -- Duerson's last season ended about 17 years before his death in 2011, and Creekmur was 82 when he passed away. They were great and accomplished players and their losses were tragic, but casual NFL fans like me had to be reminded precisely who they were.

And there were other diagnoses that current fans would know -- Chris Henry was diagnosed with the condition after his tragic death in a 2009 incident that possibly had very little to do with CTE. That was a milestone in that it was believed to be the first player diagnosed with the disease who had been active at the time of his death. (There is still no way to test for CTE when the patient is alive.)

But Junior Seau was the first almost-certain Hall of Famer we know of whose suicide might be linked to CTE, the first one that anyone who had followed any level of football over the last 20 years would remember. And so if his death reverberates a little more in football, there's nothing wrong with that, nothing that says that the other players whose lives have ended too soon are less worthy of our remembrance. It just means that Junior Seau's death is more notable because it was inevitable milestone, even if he wasn't the one who would inevitably end up as the milestone.

Junior Seau's death is the unofficial point at which no one who has ever watched the game can ignore CTE any more.

- - -

At times like these, I always think about Von Gammon and the small exhibit about him that's housed on the fourth floor of the Georgia State Capitol. In addition to the galleries for each of the legislative chambers and a few committee rooms and offices, the fourth floor is home to a sort of mini-museum, where some of the more significant moments in Georgia legislative and political history -- and things like a two-headed calf -- are on display.

As a college football fan, though, I was always most interested in the Von Gammon exhibit.

There was no doubt about what killed the 17-year-old player for Georgia, no question whether football had anything to do with it, because Von Gammon (full name: Richard Vonalbade Gammon) died one day after suffering a severe concussion in a football game. In the outrage that followed, Georgia politicians lept into action and passed, on a 122-7 margin, a ban on football. As the bill made its way to Gov. William Atkinson, Rosalind Gammon made a simple but eloquent request of the governor considering a bill sparked by her son's death.

She asked him to veto it.

His love for his college and his interest in all manly sports, without which he deemed the highest type of manhood impossible, is well known by his classmates and friends, and it would be inexpressibly sad to have the cause he held so dear injured by his sacrifice. Grant me the right to request that my boy's death should not be used to defeat the most cherished object of his life.

It remains to me one of the most heart-wrenching things I've ever read. Rosalind Gammon's heart had to be broken to an extent that most of us can't imagine and never want to experience. Her son lay dead because, we are told in the controversy around football, of a game. And yet she told the governor that the only way her pain could be magnified, the only way anyone could actually make the death of her son worse, was if it was "used to defeat the most cherished object of his life."

Of course, Rosalind Gammon is not the only one whose voice matters in this debate. But her plea is one of the things that resonates most with me at times like this. Because many of these young men would also consider football one of the most cherished objects of their lives; if they know the risks and continue to play, then who are we take that away from them?

- - -

Von Gammon's story is one of the many deaths at the center of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, an exceptional book by John J. Miller. I read the book as it was about to be released last year and meant to review it, but never got the chance. The legislative session was in full swing, and then there were the closing weeks of the SEC baseball season, then conference realignment and SEC Media Days ...

Miller's subtitle somewhat missells the book. Roosevelt's role in fighting for the survival of football -- which was under more pressure then that it is even now -- is certainly chronicled. But what comes through even more is just how endangered football was in the early 1900s and how Roosevelt and a band of reformers -- sometimes working at cross-purposes -- eventually found a way to preserve the game and cut back on the injuries and deaths that were haunting it.

In a way, the book that Miller wrote is more sweeping and more relevant than the subtitle would suggest. In fact, from 1905-1916, the fatality figures from football hit double digits in each year (except for 1915, when there are no figures). But with the exception of 1909, when 26 deaths were blamed on football (10 of them in college), 1905 was the high point; eighteen players died.

There was a very real move afoot to ban the sport during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Roosevelt joined advocates of a philosophy known as muscular Christianity -- one of the many concepts well known to Gilded Age students that Miller makes accessible for a wider audience -- in arguing that the nation's very character was at stake in the battle, and that football should survive.

Survival, as it turned out, would come at a price.

- - -

That price included one of the facets of the game that we find entertaining and think of as indispensable to football: The forward pass. In the wake of a publicity crisis in 1905, when the game of football was so endangered that then-President Roosevelt was forced to step in, a series of reforms was put in place. One of them, as Miller illustrates, was the first tentative step toward allowing the forward pass.

Up until then, the forward pass had been illegal in football. Or at least, technically. One of the sport's highest profile figures noticed in an 1895 game between North Carolina and Georgia the limits of that rule. Miller writes about a would-be punt by North Carolina late in the game, which was tied at 0-0.

When he received the ball, however, he did not kick it. Instead, he took a few steps to his right and tossed the ball forward. It traveled only a few yards, into the hands of a teammate, who raced the length of the field for a touchdown. The play was illegal, but the referee did not call it back. Apparently he had not seen it.

But John Heisman had, and he would promote the forward pass later as the sport looked for a way to break with the rugby-like style of play that was killing its players. Eventually, it would catch on -- over the heated objections of Walter Camp, who "continued to believe the forward pass represented a corruption of the sport." He would eventually walk away from this new version of football just as it was gaining popularity.

The sport of football had changed for the better -- later adaptations made it even less lethal -- even though it had lost "the Father of American Football."

- - -

Which is why I guess I'm not too pessimistic about the future of football. Yes, we're finding that the sport kills some of those that play it, but we've found that out before. And we fixed it. And we'll fix it again. Some of the changes will likely be controversial. But they will come, because we owe the players that much. And the smart money is on those changes saving lives.

Speaking to ESPN The Magazine early last year, a pediatric neuropsychologist named Gerard Gioia sounded optimistic about fixing the game. The question seems to be more one of will than of capability.

"But I don't think it's so complex that we can't do 90 percent of what we need to do to protect athletes. We're light-years ahead of where we were just a few years ago."

We have to understand the risk inherent in that 10 percent, though. Much of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate about whether America is in a new Gilded Age is overly simplistic and relies on caricatures of the era, but we are indisputably like our ancestors of 130 years ago on this respect: We are awash in so much technology that has profoundly altered our world that we are convinced we remain one discovery away from being masters of our fate, wiping out premature deaths, and making mortality a concern of the past.

We are wrong about this. Whether you want to believe it because of your faith or because of your philosophy or because of the long arc of human history, there is abundant evidence that we will never eradicate death. And because of that, we will never eradicate risk. The question will always be one of how much risk you're willing to take.

Some would argue that any risk of premature death for something that is, after all, "just a game" is too much. I disagree. I'll never forget sitting in a bar in Atlanta as the Saints took on the Falcons in Week 3 of the 2006 season. It was the first time the Saints were back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, and most football fans were probably pulling, just a little bit, for the team from New Orleans. Except for me and my fellow Falcons fans, of course.

But even watching on a TV more than 450 miles away, and even wanting to believe that the importance of a Saints win was being overblown, even I could tell that there was an electricity in that building unlike anything I've ever seen in another sporting event. For the city of New Orleans, that was as much a sign of their recovery as the gradual reappearance of homes that had been wiped off the map.

And I believe it was likely the same when football was played at the beginning of the last season in Tuscaloosa. And my guess is that it will be similar when another American sports town is hit with disaster and forced to confront the task of rebuilding. No, the football team or baseball team in that area can't rebuild a single home by playing a game, but they can begin to rebuild hope, and that's worth something.

And it's probably worth that 10 percent risk that the changes we make to the game in the next few years aren't going to stop every concussion or protect everyone. And we'll mourn the loss of each Junior Seau and we'll re-examine whether any changes need to be made.

And hopefully, we'll keep reforming the game as it's always been reformed, with an eye toward saving the players who have made it the most cherished object of their lives.