The death of linebacker Junior Seau has been a tremendous loss to all of the people he touched throughout his life – as a player, through the charitable work of his foundation, and as an active member of the community. In order to find meaning in the loss, the NFL community should resolve itself to make radical changes to the health and welfare of former players.
Seau’s death eerily mirrors Dave Duerson’s suicide from 2011. Duerson also shot himself in the chest, and Duerson asked his brain to be donated to research on the long term effects of concussion. We learned on Friday that Seau’s family will donate his brain to science as well.
Duerson’s brain showed the long term effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – a long term degenerative disease seen in individuals that have suffered from multiple concussions, or other forms of head trauma. CTE symptoms can include dementia, depression, memory loss, confusion and aggression.
Only time will tell if Seau’s brain shows the same pattern (CTE can only be diagnosed by a post mortem examination of the brain), but the pattern of NFL players that have ended in suicide is alarming. In addition to Seau and Duerson, former Falcon Ray Easterling committed suicide just last month.
And while the suicides are the most shocking evidence, there are many, many more stories of former players suffering from the effects of multiple concussions that didn’t show up until after their careers ended.
Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon suffers from severe memory loss, similar to an Alzheimer’s patient, but McMahon is only 51 years old. Anyone who watched football in the 1980s recalls McMahon as a smart, brash, talented quarterback who led the 1985 Bears to the Super Bowl. Now, McMahon indicates that his memory is largely gone. “There are a lot of times when I walk into a room and forget why I walked in there.”
“I’m going through some studies right now,” McMahon said. “It’s unfortunate what the game does to you.” And while McMahon has come out and spoken openly about his symptoms, only the players know how many of them are suffering similar effects, to a greater or lesser degree. McMahon is one of over 1,500 former NFL players that are suing the league over withholding information from players on the long term impact of concussions.
The lawsuits will be settled in the courts, but today there is no secret of the seriousness of the impact of concussions. And while more research is certainly needed, a more aggressive program for dealing with concussions in the NFL is needed. The program needs to address both current players that are still playing the game, and the former players that are already suffering from the effects of post-concussion syndrome.
For current players, there needs to be improved screening procedures to ensure that concussions are identified properly as well as more rigorous, objective means to make better return-to-play decisions. Coming back too soon from a concussion can lead to more serious effects from a second trauma. Chargers tackle Kris Dielman stayed in a game last year when it appeared obvious to millions watching the game on TV that he was stunned and had a concussion. Dielman suffered a seizure on the flight back to San Diego and has since retired from football. Only time will tell what long term effects he will suffer as a result of the injuries.
For former players, there needs to be an effective program, including research, education and clinical intervention to help identify players that are suffering from these long term affects and provide them the help that they need. There is a stigma associated with this that needs to be removed for these players to get the care that they need. A knee or shoulder injury doesn’t come with a stigma, and the brain is a far more important part of the body.
Hopefully, the senseless tragedy of losing a man like Junior Seau can help to catalyze changes to improve the lives of so many other players that are suffering in silence.
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