Jaffe: Seau’s suicide death prompts questions about football’s safety

May 7, 2012, 1:45 a.m.

I hate the news.

I’ve never liked watching the news, reading the news or even knowing the news. I know — this is weird because I work for a newspaper. I know it’s important to stay up-to-date on what’s going on in the world, but every time I see the news, it depresses me. “News” seems to be equivalent to “who was just killed” and “what normal everyday objects are slowly killing you” and “how the government is screwing things up so more people will die.”

Sports, on the other hand, are fun. Sports allow you to experience every possible emotion without ever getting in any danger. You can yell and scream and cry, and all that has changed is that some millionaires have run around a field. The next day, you can go right back to it while feeling good about life.

There are so many great things about sports, and one of the best parts is the distraction they can offer from the world. No matter what is happening in your life, sports can give you that small amount of joy to get you through the day.

Except sometimes even sports can’t escape the tragedies of the real world.

On Wednesday, Jered Weaver pitched a no-hitter for my favorite team in the world, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Yet his brilliance on the mound was regrettably pushed way down on every sports news show in the world, and for a good reason. On a day that should have been about a baseball no-hitter and playoffs in basketball and hockey, football stole the show for all the wrong reasons.

The story of the day was Junior Seau, a former NFL linebacker who was found dead at 43 with a gunshot wound in his chest. Seau was one of the best linebackers in history, and his passion for the game was infectious. Growing up in Southern California, I couldn’t help but root for Seau on the San Diego Chargers even though he went to USC. Before I knew anything about football defense (every new fan just watches the ball), I watched Seau roam around because he seemed to be involved in every single tackle.

The 12-time Pro Bowler ranks 10th all-time with 243 NFL starts, and every anecdote from fellow players says that he loved playing the game every bit as much as fans enjoyed watching him. But less than a week ago, Seau shot himself in the chest.

Seau’s suicide is incredibly tragic, but it also brings up several questions: Was playing football involved in his death? Did it stem from concussions and lasting brain damage? Was it because he didn’t know what to do with his life after his football career ended?

Studies of Seau’s brain could provide some insight, but we will never know the true answers to all these questions. However, these questions will undoubtedly lead to many more doubts about the most popular sport in America. Head injuries and brain damage in football were already of particular interest, and a suicide by a future Hall of Famer will only accelerate the debate.

I love watching football and find many of the recent personal foul penalties excessive and annoying. But clearly, both the safety of players and their future well-being are more important than a penalty flag every so often. At some point, though, this might not be enough.

Is football just inherently too violent to survive? That question, which would seem ridiculous a couple years ago, has become much more complicated. Wednesday’s other top story, the suspensions given to Saints players for their roles in the bounty scandal, does nothing to minimize the issue. Players slamming into each other on every play is one thing, but players doing their best to injure an opponent is even more troubling. Combine this with stories of former players like Seau who, for whatever reason, cannot live normal lives after playing football, and the long-term viability of football really becomes questionable. Because let’s be honest: non-contact football is not a reasonable option.

There’s no easy answer to solve the issues with football and player safety, but acknowledging that there is a real problem is the first step toward saving and improving the game. And when days like Wednesday come around, it’s impossible to ignore that there is a real problem with football.

Jacob Jaffe is still upset about the career-ending concussion he sustained at last year’s Ink Bowl. Help him get back to living his normal life at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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