If it turns out that former Chargers great Junior Seau indeed committed suicide, and that he shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be examined for symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), San Diego will be in the center of a great controversy that could have a profound effect on the future of football. Seau is the best and most widely revered player who suffered apparent football-related brain damage, and appears to have taken his life at such a young age. If he had CTE, as tests may or may not later show, this event will be to football as Kent State was to the Vietnam War protest movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Last year, a former star Chicago Bears player, Dave Duerson, committed suicide by a shot in the chest so that his brain could be examined. But Seau has a much bigger name.
The Seau tragedy is reminiscent of a great poem, "To an Athlete Dying Young," by A. E. Housman. The gist was that the athlete who died young was fortunate, because his fame would have evaporated and his life become humdrum. "Smart lad, to slip betimes away/From fields where glory does not stay," wrote Housman, speaking of "Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man." Seau's name will never die, but if it turns out he had CTE, his name may spark national introspection about the violence of the sport.
Publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Times have carefully followed the brain injuries -- and other injuries -- of retired professional football players. The current controversy about the bounties on injured players encouraged by the New Orleans Saints is a story that will not die. At the time of the recent National Football League (NFL) draft, Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith boasted that the team had picked a "mean, nasty man." When he uttered those words, I wondered if he ever reads the paper -- or the lawsuits against the NFL.