Bob Lutz: Seau’s suicide raises more questions than it answers

05/04/2012 5:00 AM

05/05/2012 7:59 AM

It’s difficult to write about Junior Seau, difficult to even know what to write. His life, obviously, was complex. His death, too.

People are looking for answers as to why Seau, a sure-fire Pro Football Hall of Famer who spent 20 years in the NFL, killed himself with a gunshot wound to the chest Wednesday in San Diego, where he was an icon because of all his years with the Chargers.

Why?

As determined as we are for answers, we understand how hard they can be to understand. Seau apparently left no suicide note and none of his friends or family members have come forth to talk about the difficulties the 43-year-old Seau was facing.

There is speculation, of course, that Seau was depressed because he was no longer able to play football. There is also speculation that his brain function may have been diminished because of all the hard hits he gave and received during his long career.

The bottom line, though, is that Seau committed suicide. And whenever someone commits suicide, there are always more questions than answers.

He left behind three children, ages 12 through 19. He left behind a grieving mother, Luisa, who sobbed uncontrollably as she addressed the media just hours after her baby boy’s death. He left behind friends who can’t imagine what caused Seau to take such an extreme measure and fans whose adoration has been tempered, at least for the moment while they try to wrap their heads around this unthinkable occurrence.

One of the ramifications from the Seau tragedy is that it has sparked an intense national debate concerning the long and short-term safety of playing football, a debate that has been simmering for a while now.

As more and more football players struggle to put together a life after the game because they suffer from the effects of concussion-related injuries, it’s fair to wonder how much longer football can exist the way it has existed for so many years.

Players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever and equipment simply hasn’t been able to keep up. Efforts to make the game safer, some would say, are coming too late and will only provide lip service to the problem. The fines and suspensions handed down from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to New Orleans Saints coaches and players implicated in Bountygate definitely have bite, though.

Goodell is taking safety seriously and maybe today’s players ultimately will benefit from his stewardship. But what about past players? More than 100 of them filed a lawsuit Thursday that alleges the NFL deliberately misled them about the dangers of concussions.

Seau’s suicide feels like a watershed event in the discussion of football safety, whether it’s determined concussions were a potential factor in his death or not. Seau’s family, of course thirsty for knowledge in what might have led their loved one to do what he did, will allow researchers to study his brain for signs of damage caused by head trauma, according to reports.

The ultimate question is this: How safe is football?

Let me answer that question with another question. If you’re the parent of a young boy who approaches you about signing up for a youth football team, do you feel any differently about making that decision than you did a year ago?

Many parents who probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to this issue before will now give it a serious look.

Football is such a part of America that the game isn’t going away. But it’s long past time for a tough national debate about whether enough is being done to protect those who play.

It’s starting at the NFL level and will, I’m sure, trickle down. Young players aren’t immune to the effects of concussions. And, as thousands of football players have discovered, there can be a long life after playing careers end.

Yet part of football’s appeal, perhaps the biggest part, is the violence. Those of us who love the game love the hard hits and the aggressive nature of play. Already, it’s apparent that defensive players are being mandated to tone things down in the NFL, as penalties for illegal hits to the head have risen sharply in the past several seasons.

That mandate has frustrated defensive players and made it easier for offensive players, although there is still no shortage of barbarianism in the game.

Seau was one who played football with rage. He was a great linebacker for a reason and it was because he loved making the big hit. When men with NFL size and speed are throwing themselves around on a football field, heads are bound to get hit. There aren’t enough rules, regulations or pads in the world to keep these players from getting hurt.

The challenge is to find ways to keep their heads better protected. Some have proposed a change in helmet design that would provide more padding around the head. But players resist because those helmets would be more cumbersome and, they fear, cost them mobility.

It’s difficult to make current players understand the risks involved with head injuries. But the guys from the old school can tell them. Provided they’re able to speak coherently, that is.

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