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Viewpoint: Stake in the game

BY AUGUST TURNER

Published May 20, 2012

On May 2, as the news of her son’s untimely passing pulsed along newswires throughout the country, Luisa Seau addressed the well wishers who had made their way out to her home in Oceanside, Calif. Distraught and understandably hysterical, she choked out a public statement that ended in tears and a warning.

“Drive carefully, drive safely,” she cried, no doubt recalling the cliff-side plunge that Junior Seau’s SUV had taken only a couple of years earlier, an accident that, though he emerged unharmed, now possessed more suspect motivations in light of his death.

The tale of Junior Seau, a former National Football League star whose life came to an early end after his playing career, is one that is all too familiar in the NFL in recent years. By now, many of us have heard the stories of Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, Ray Easterling and Andre Waters, all former players who have recently taken their own lives. Waters was left with brain tissue that had degenerated to the state of an 85-year-old man by the time he died, due to the concussions he suffered during his football career. He was 43. Duerson, in an act that was tragically eerie, sent a text message to his family minutes before his suicide, stating that he wanted his brain to be donated to science after he died. He, like Seau, then shot himself in the chest.

And now, in addition to these deaths, the loss of Junior Seau raises questions that the game of football, from the NFL to the high-school level, is hard-pressed to answer: What’s the price of entertainment? Will too many parents concerned with their child’s safety keep them from playing football, killing the sport from the ground up? What is the future of football? For the most part, the answers to these questions are unclear.

A more important question, however, is one that not only the NFL or the NCAA should be asking, but also the fans: What do we do now? Given a sports culture that only a few years ago celebrated the hard-hitting toughness of the game (check YouTube for clips of the now-defunct “Knocked Up” segments from ESPN’s NFL Live), the transition from this tough attitude to a public consciousness that is more concerned with safety has been relatively swift.

One looming issue still persists that negates this concern. It’s an issue that contradicts the very nature of professional and collegiate football itself: We still watch the game. Despite the mounting tragedies, the popularity of football in the United States has only grown in recent years. The Super Bowl set the record for U.S. television ratings three years in a row, with the latest garnering an average of 111.3 million viewers. Eight of the Big House’s 10 highest attendances — which are effectively collegiate football’s attendance records —have occurred in the past two years. When a market this conductive to the growth of a product such as collegiate or professional football is present, questions of ownership with issues like player safety persist. Who is to be held responsible for Duerson or Waters? Surely the players who delivered the hits to Duerson, Waters, Webster, Easterling or Seau could point the finger of blame to the coaches who called the plays. The coaches, likewise, could turn the fault to the owners and athletic directors who pay them to make these decisions. And who else would the owners and ADs shift the blame to but us, the very fans who put the money into their hands, who create the demand for such a product?

There is a certain pride, no doubt, associated with football at the University of Michigan, the home of the winningest football program of all time. Beyond this pride, however, what is our true stake in the game as spectators? As students, does it truly serve as anything more than a venue for drunken merriment for the majority of us? Is that worth the possibility of someday seeing our fellow classmates who take the field suffer the same fate as Dave Duerson?

It’s time for the student body, for the fans, to consider this harsh reality and to ponder: What does this game really mean to us? When we face the facts of the situation, it’s easy to see that the inherent risks of the game are not worth our selfish rewards. It’s because we don't take the hits across the middle, the bone rattling collisions, nor the back-breaking blindside sacks that the players are subjected to every game, and many of us will not see a loved one take his own life as a result of this punishment. Instead, as the players make their way off the field at a game’s conclusion, they’re the ones who are possibly injured and perhaps, as the team doctors may later tell them, irreversibly so. We, the fans, just file out of our seats either raucous in victory or despondent in defeat, but regardless, feeling things easily forgotten by the next week’s contest.