The NFL is full of contradictions and perhaps none will be more important to its reputation and players as unfolding the mystery of just how much the violent nature of the game can take down yesterday's heroes.
Junior Seau's death, ruled a suicide after a gunshot wound to the chest, last week was the latest sad tragedy to bring the issue back under the spotlight of center stage. The NFL's dark secret – that its alumni are often hurting physically and emotionally – was brought into national focus once again. Seau was the poster boy for NFL toughness during his two decades of high-impact hitting as the incomparable linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. But his post-football time lasted less time than his formative college years.
In his first 14 NFL seasons, he missed only nine games, an incredible picture of durability in a high-impact sport. Over the final six years of his career, the hits caught up to him, as he missed 43 games. Now, after he took his life without many signs of depression, the speculation is that concussions caught up to him and might have led to his decision to pull the trigger and end his life (his ex-wife said he suffered concussions but there were no signs of depression; he was recently out in the public spotlight and full of life).
The fact that he shot himself in the chest is believed to be his way of following in the footsteps of other NFL alumni who have taken their lives in a fashion that leaves their brain intact for Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to analyze. Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest last year. Just last month, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who had joined in a concussion-related lawsuit against the league, shot himself. His wife said he suffered from depression and dementia.
The NFL is facing increasing scrutiny and lawsuits surrounding player safety and how much the league should be held liable for the physical and cognitive struggles of its alumni. What's clear is that the culture and awareness surrounding the issue is changing, even if that change is slow to come. There is little doubt that modifications in the procedures are being made.
These days, medical personnel are being placed in booths at every NFL game with the sole purpose of trying to spot any player that should be examined for a concussion. That stands in sharp contrast to the way things were handled decades ago, when the league was sprouting its immense popularity.
Paul Wiggin, now a consultant with the Minnesota Vikings' scouting staff after serving in several capacities since the 1980s, played 11 seasons for the Cleveland Browns, from 1957-67, and remembers well how different that era was. He never missed a game, whether it was the 12-game ear of the 1950s or the 14-game decade of the 1960s. But he also knows the medical standards were far inferior to the today's greater consciousness for player healthy and safety.
Wiggin, a left defensive end of the Browns, recalled playing in a game when cornerback Jim Shofner was hit so hard he was knocked unconscious toward the end of the first half. Wiggin and his teammates didn't want the other team to have a shot at another play and picked Shofner up so there wouldn't be an injury timeout.
"He was there with his head drooping down. In my opinion, I don't think anybody really purposely didn't give credence to what a concussion was. I think they really thought it was part of athletics in general," Wiggin said.
This wasn't Wiggin putting out a story of the lost machismo in the NFL. He was simply illustrating how far awareness has advanced in the 50 years since that incident in pro football.
"Back in those days, so much of it was accepted. We probably all lived in ignorance," Wiggin said.
"You would have heard medial collateral (ligament) much more than a concussion when I played. … The world was less complicated in a different way. I don't think the importance of human life was quite as meaningful at that time."
These days, Wiggin says he "almost get cold chills" watching boxing and seeing the beating those athletes take.
While today's game is safer with greater respect for humanity, the speed and size of the athlete has increased, creating an even more violent hit. But the great irony of today may lie with the NFL Players Association.
Even while alumni affected by concussions and other ailments believed to be related to football call for financial assistance and levy lawsuits against the NFL, the players union is fighting to defend those players hit with suspensions and fines in the pay-for-pain Bountygate. In essence, the NFLPA is trying to defend those few players who were paying for players to be injured while accepting union dues from those thousands of other members, some of which were the target of the "cart-offs" and "knockouts" on their wish list.
It also rings a bit hollow when current players complain when they are fined for hits to the helmet when their victims could be the ones affected years down the road by the preponderance of concussions.
Those who play the game with passion and maintain reverence for the rules that protect the future of their fellow competitors are the ones that should be celebrated. These day, players can't say they didn't know about the risks they take by playing game. The players of Wiggin's era may not have realized the long-term risks they were taking.
"I don't think it was cruelty," Wiggin said. "I just think it was ignorance."
The deaths of Seau, Easterling, Duerson and others should serve as a guide. The greatest game on earth doesn't have to change dramatically, but the intentional hits to the head need to cease.
NFL players today know the risk. It's not ignorance anymore; instead, it's idiocy if they continue to defend the headhunters of the modern game.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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