I stopped watching football last year. Even before Kap took a knee, the NFL had been driven by a certain noxious brand of culture warring: the massive American flags, a collective shoulder shrug at domestic violence. The “clean hits” didn’t feel especially clean. The tackles seemed to be getting louder. Or maybe it was just me. The sad thing about sports is that they can be fun until you think about them too hard, and once you do, you can’t escape the ugliness. For every player I loved to watch — OBJ and that preposterous one-handed catch, the speedy, elusive Russell Wilson — I was haunted by an Aaron Hernandez. Or a Junior Seau.
“Seau,” a new “30 for 30” documentary from ESPN, follows the tragic undoing of the charismatic linebacker, whose suicide in 2012 ignited a long-overdue national conversation about the likelihood of football players to suffer chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. Drafted by his hometown San Diego Chargers in 1990, Seau played nearly 20 years in the NFL, making two Super Bowl appearances and earning 10 All-Pro selections. His death came as a shock not only because of his stature in the league, but also because of his cheery demeanor. “Buddy!” his friends and teammates remember him greeting everyone he met.
But as each NFL season passed, director Kirby Bradley illustrates, the damage football was inflicting on Seau grew more conspicuous. He announced a short-lived retirement from football through what his agent remembers as a bizarre, incoherent public speech in San Diego. He went on to play a final season with the Patriots, but it ended in heartbreak with a loss at Super Bowl XLII. Seau had been happily married and a doting father but began to withdraw from family life and turned to gambling. After retiring, he divorced his wife and spent less time with his children. Everyone who knew him was baffled by the dramatic change in his mood and personality. When a neighbor, an MLS soccer player who had suffered a concussion, told Seau about his symptoms, the linebacker scoffed: “I’ve had a headache since I was 15.”
For years, the NFL’s token response was that playing football was unrelated to degenerative brain disease. “Seau” is a damning look at the lengths the NFL went to to ensure that Seau’s death didn’t become a real problem for the league. Despite decades of research on the lasting health effects of a football career, it was only very recently that the NFL even acknowledged the possibility of a link to CTE. And though they’ve made various rule changes, the fact remains that the tackle, the animating force of football, is what makes it so dangerous. Junior Seau’s fight won’t be won so easily.
The NFL Draft is this week. Roger Goodell will saunter on and off a stage in Nashville to announce the picks, everyone there will boo him and when the weekend ends, there will be 254 rookies in the league. Some of them won’t get much playing time in their careers, but some of them will. A few will be linebackers, like Seau, and in a lifetime of play, they’ll endure sub-concussive blow after blow to the head. Over time, clumps of tau protein will build up in their brains until they strangle nerve cells. The research says CTE can make a 40-year-old man’s brain look like an 80-year-old’s. Years after these players retire, they’ll find themselves becoming angrier, more depressed, more confused, more forgetful. And cowards like Goodell and Jerry Jones, who spent years peddling doubts about the link between this vicious sport and lasting trauma to the brain, will be laughing their way to the bank.