Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, SpongeBob, and the Morality of Watching Football

You’ve probably read a couple dozen articles about the implications of head injuries in football in the past 48 hours. This is another one of those. I understand if you want to click away now.

The impetus for all of this discussion about head injuries and the future of football is, of course, the apparent suicide of future hall-of-fame linebacker Junior Seau.

Junior Seau and Ray Easterling

Seau appears to have shot himself in the chest, an unusual way to take one’s life but one reminiscent of Dave Duerson’s 2011 suicide. Duerson, a former NFL safety who played much of his career for the Chicago Bears, killed himself with a gunshot to his chest so that researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine could study his brain as part of the school’s research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Seau’s girlfriend discovered his body Wednesday in Seau’s Oceanside, California home.

Given the manner of Seau’s death, we can’t help but speculate as to whether CTE (or another condition related to head trauma) is to blame. But we don’t yet have the facts, and we can’t know for sure whether football had anything at all to do with Seau’s death. Unlike Duerson, Seau didn’t leave a note. (Nonetheless the Boston University School of Medicine has asked to do research on Seau’s brain.)

Nearly two weeks ago another NFL player, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, killed himself in his Richmond, Virginia home.

Easterling’s death didn’t get nearly the coverage that Seau’s did, and it certainly didn’t inspire as much moral outrage. It makes sense.  Easterling wasn’t nearly the player Seau was. He had a respectable eight-year career with the Falcons, but—unlike Seau—he didn’t make 12 Pro Bowls and an All-Decade Team.

Former Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who was involved in a lawsuit against the NFL, took his life last month after suffering depression and dementia. (AP photo)

 

Easterling, however, was one of seven players involved in a lawsuit against the NFL, alleging that the league failed to properly treat players with head injuries and that the league concealed information about the link between professional football and brain injuries. Following his playing career Easterling suffered from depression, insomnia, and dementia, presumably resulting from repeated concussions.

Regardless of what we learn about Junior Seau, we have enough evidence to suggest that football, at least at the professional level, isn’t kind to the brains of those who play it.

  • As of last month 61 concussion-related lawsuits had been filed against the NFL.
  • Studies suggest that the average lifespan of an NFL player who plays five or more seasons is 55 (52 for linemen), 20 years less than the life expectancy of a male in the United States.
  • Two years ago researchers at the Brain Injury Research Institute at the University of West Virginia discovered that former Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who died in a car accident while he was an active player, had already developed CTE at the age of 26.

And then there’s Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling.

Players from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s signed contracts and took the field without knowledge of the risks associated with the game. Sure, they knew that every play could result in injury, but they had no idea that early-onset dementia and other chronic mental and emotional problems could await them after retirement. Today’s players aren’t nearly as ignorant of the dangers of football.

While there is still much to learn about the relationship between football and head trauma, we know enough to say that an NFL career can have a devastating effect on one’s health and quality of life.

Sure, the league has responded to this new knowledge. But the reforms the NFL has put into place—moving kick-offs 5 yards forward, imposing strict penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, cracking down on bounties—have been as symbolic as they have been substantial. The game still involves some of the world’s strongest athletes repeatedly charging into each other while wearing hard plastic helmets. And the league and its broadcast partners continue to celebrate and promote hard hits.

While the league and its teams now know better how to respond to concussions (unless you believe this story), medical research suggests that even subconcussive hits to the head can cause brain damage.

Compare a healthy brain (left) to the brain of former NFL player Mike Borich (right, pictured) who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Borich died of a drug overdoese in 2009. (Boston University/Associated Press/NFL Photos)

 

Despite the information that is available, players keep playing. And college players keep entering the draft or signing free agent contracts.

Pro football players are aware of at least some of the risks, but—whether for the lucrative salaries, the love of the game, the fact that they’ve spent a lifetime working toward a dream and aren’t about to give it up, or a combination of these and other factors—have decided to play anyway. They’re consenting adults. Who are we to tell them not to play football, or to play some stripped-down safe version of the game?

Willing Participants

In the 2009 SpongeBob SquarePants episode “No Hat for Pat,” Patrick Star (starfish and best friend of the title character) is upset that SpongeBob spends so much time at work and is jealous of the hat that SpongeBob wears to his shift at the Krusty Krab, a burger joint. Mr. Krabs, owner of the Krusty Krab, eventually decides to give Patrick a job and a hat, but when Patrick dons the hat, he loses his balance and falls over.

Mr. Krabs decides that customers will pay to see someone fall over repeatedly and decides to make Patrick an in-store sideshow act. Eventually the novelty of watching Patrick fall on his face wears off, so Mr. Krabs arranges a stunt in which Patrick will fall from a diving board into a pool of spiny sea urchins.

Patrick is a willing participant. He has a job and a hat, which is all he wanted to begin with. So he’s happy to fall into a pool of spiky urchins. Mr. Krabs is happy because he’s profiting from the act. And the Krusty Krab patrons are happy because they find the act entertaining. Everyone involved is happy with the arrangement.

But SpongeBob has reservations. Even though Patrick has given his consent, SpongeBob worries that his best friend is being exploited. He also expresses concern that everyone is so eager to see Patrick engage in an activity that will threaten his health and well-being.

Difficult Decisions

Forgive me for using a children’s cartoon to address a topic as serious as head injuries in football, but I think we can learn something from our absorbent, yellow, porous friend.

And, it’s important to point out that, by and large, NFL players are much more intelligent than Patrick Star (their stand-in in this analogy). The analogy is not meant to suggest that NFL players are simple-minded.

NFL players are consenting adults who, with some knowledge of the dangers of the game, can choose to play football. And many love and enjoy the sport. But perhaps we need to assess the morality of supporting such activity. By watching football on television, attending games, and buying memorabilia, are we supporting a league and a game that endangers its participants’ health, well-being, and lives?

Many people choose not to buy products from companies that they think exploit workers or treat workers unfairly. Even if the workers themselves agree to the wages and working conditions, outside observers may decide that a company is exploiting or endangering its workers or that the workers deserve better. Such observers may choose to withdraw support from the company until it makes substantial reforms.

Maybe we, as football fans, need to make a similar decision with regard to professional football.

Maybe we need to ask tough questions about college football, where schools aren’t responsible for the long-term health of student athletes, and high school football, where most of the participants are minors.

I say all this knowing that, come July, I will be counting down the days and weeks until the start of the college and professional football seasons. I don’t want to stop watching football. And, if I’m honest with myself, I probably won’t.

In fairness to the NFL, there are plenty of players who don’t suffer brain injuries and who have happy, fulfilling lives after retiring. And football is hardly the only profession that involves long-term health risks. Even sitting in an office chair for forty years can have lasting negative effects on one’s quality of life and well-being.

Still, as we learn more about the connection between what happens on the field and what happens in a former player’s head later in life, we will have to make difficult choices about what we’re willing to watch and support.

 



About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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