The Death of Junior Seau & Head Injuries: 10 Essential Resources

Junior Seau, football hall-of-famer and former New England Patriot, is dead.  It appears that he committed suicide.  Seau was 43 and had an ex-wife and three children.

This is the latest in a growing line of NFL suicides, and Seau is the sixth member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers team to die from suicide, alcohol or drugs (two other Chargers died in freak accidents).  It is not immediately clear that Seau killed himself because of brain trauma and resulting mental illness, but there are forbiddingly ominous signs of the same (he did suffer many concussions, that much is clear).  Two years ago, Seau survived a 100-foot plunge off a cliff following a fight with his girlfriend.  He said that he fell asleep at the wheel, but one sees a pattern here in relation to previous tragic deaths of NFL players and other athletes (see below).  All this discussion must, of course, be conducted with clear reference to human sinfulness, which is our primary problem.  But our physical actions can aid and abet our sin and fallenness, that much seems clear.

On Twitter, I discussed this issue with some friends and connected this death to the strong possibility of brain injury.  Good questions were raised, and someone asked about hard data that helps to substantiate the connection between football violence and bizarre, even deadly, behavior.  Below are some links that I’ve culled on this subject, one that has personally interested me for three years.

1. The New York Times compendium on brain injuries and sports–The foremost journalistic resource on this entire subject, with dozens of articles (Joe Nocera of the NYT has led the charge, to his credit).  An absolute must-visit, though you may burn through your 10 free articles per month here!

2. Jonah Lehrer’s Grantland essay–Filled with data, scientific discussion of the brain, and why the problem of concussions is bedeviling (it’s not easy to stop the brain from moving around).  Frightening fact: includes mention of the only youth brain studied, that of an 18-year-old player–the brain showed clear evidence of irreversible brain trauma.

3. ESPN reporting on Owen Thomas–A Penn football star who committed suicide and whose brain clearly showed CTE

4. New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell–Famously compared football to dog-fighting.  Included some of the earliest research on collision impacts on football, which liked a UNC practice to a series of “minor car crashes”

5. ESPN coverage of the death of Dave Duerson–Committed suicide and shot himself in the chest, apparently in order to preserve his brain for concussion research (Seau did the same, possibly for similar reasons)

6. Early GQ piece on brain injuries and the courageous doctor studying them–”[He saw] brown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning.  This was why Mike Webster was crazy.”

7. First Things essay I did on this subject linking to many articles on this topic

8. Coverage of a pro wrestler who went crazy and killed his wife and son–”Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.”

9. Minnesota Public Radio coverage of the brain injuries of deceased hockey player Derek Boogard

10. Research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine that shows negative brain effects from heading balls in soccer

In listing these resources, I’m not suggesting that Christians can’t play or watch football or other contact-oriented sports, but surely there must be productive things that we can do to address these issues.  That all starts, of course, with information, and though I’m not a doctor nor a researcher, I want to try to help others think well about violence, sports, and the application to every area of the Christian conscience created by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Filed under sports injuries

9 responses to “The Death of Junior Seau & Head Injuries: 10 Essential Resources

  1. owenstrachan

    Two more pieces: one, from an author who loves football. He says he may be done watching:!+Mail

    Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic says he is indeed out after Seau’s death:

    With thanks to Jim Hamilton for the links.

  2. great list. can’t wait to read through them. here’s another of interest — malcolm gladwell’s thoughts on college football, it’s dangers, and the ethics involved, etc:

    • sorry. should have written that this is a follow-up to the new yorker article.

    • owenstrachan

      That is a fantastic link–thank you. I recommend it to those interested in this topic, as Gladwell hits hard on the subject. Not all will agree, but he makes the essential point that this discussion is not just about “big hits” and “blow-ups” but about repetitive concussive impacts–the thousands of tiny blows that can add up to horrible effects.

  3. Jethro

    Hi Owen,

    In Australia we play Rugby Union and Rugby League. Both sports involve very large, strong and athletic men running into each other at full force for 80 minutes non-stop. Unlike the NFL there are no helmets or padding at all and hardly any breaks in play. Here is an example of a good hit from a Rugby League game:

    It’s nothing more than an observation, but we don’t seem to have the same problem with ex players here committing suicide, behaving in bizarre ways etc.

    I wonder what on earth the reason for this is?

    • bucketheadbaptist

      Jethro… I suspect this is more related to hero worship by our media … and Pastors.

    • Brett

      Helmets give a false sense of security. All levels of football need to return to helmetless football, which will cause the game to return to arm tackling rather than using the head as a spear in tackling.

      • owenstrachan

        Jethro, good question. I don’t know as much about rugby as other sports (though like football it’s very fun to watch), but it sounds like rugby actually has a pretty similar problem with head injuries and brain trauma:

        Not sure about the lack of suicides et al, but I would wonder if more of that will surface over time.

  4. Pingback: Why Football Violence is Different from a Car Crash | owen strachan

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