Junior Seau and the Conscience of a Football Fan

Following the Hall of Fame linebacker's apparent suicide, football fans are wrestling with the ethics of being a football fan.

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Junior Seau played linebacker in 268 NFL games. During his two years at the University of Southern California, he played in 23. High school, who knows?

So that's 291 times that Junior Seau stepped on a green field measuring 360 by 160 feet to play an hour's worth of tackle football. Assume time of possession was evenly split: Junior Seau spent 8,730 minutes of his life -- just over six full days -- roving the turf, looking for someone to hit. He came out of the game more on 3rd down later in his career and everyone gets a few plays off to rest up, but that's offset by the hits he delivered on plays that never technically existed, because they were negated by a penalty. And then there are the thousands of hours spent on the practice field.

As you probably know, Seau was found shot to death in his Oceanside, California home yesterday. Police are investigating it as a possible suicide. This is not unreasonable. A gun was reportedly found near his body and he sent his ex-wife and three children text messages the day before his death, which all ended with the words "I love you." People commit suicide for all sorts of reasons, but when six days of your life were spent playing outside linebacker -- tackling, tackling, tackling -- the question of whether chronic repetitive brain trauma played a role in what happened seems valid. Brain tissue samples taken from other NFL alums who have taken their own lives -- including Dave Duerson and Andre Waters -- revealed evidence of a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In Waters' case, it meant that his 44-year-old brain had "degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims," Dr. Bennet Omalu, one of two neuropathologists collecting brains of deceased football players for further head trauma research, told The New York Times' Alan Schwarz in 2007.

The stock response when the issue of football head trauma arises is to talk about prevention. Better helmets, eliminating the three-point stance, concussion experts on every sideline, fewer contact drills in practice -- these are just some of the ideas put forth by people who care about football and want it to be safer.

But in the wake of Seau's death, fans of the game are considering a more fundamental and difficult question. It boils down to this: knowing what we know about what's happening inside the skulls of the 22 players on the field, is it ethically defensible to watch and enjoy a game of football? For The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, Seau's death meant the end of his relationship with the game: "I now know that I have to go," he explains. "I have known it for a while now. But I have yet to walk away. For me, the hardest portion is living apart--destroying something that binds me to friends and family. With people whom I would not pass another words, I can debate the greatest running back of all time. It's like losing a language." Malcolm Gladwell, who famously compared professional football with dogfighting in an article for The New Yorker in 2009, makes the point that football in its current form would be unrecognizable without the steady stream of hits -- some obviously vicious, others seemingly innocuous -- that lead to brain trauma. "Can you take the 'head' out of line play?" Gladwell asks. "You can. But then what you are left with would no longer be called tackle football. It would be called touch football. " Sports Illustrated college football columnist Andy Staples echoes Gladwell's point and considers what it would take to convince him football is safe enough for his own son to play:

"I love the game -- so much that I've made a career out of covering it.

But would I let my son play?

I've thought about this a lot since he was born in 2009. I'm hoping the game is safer by the time he reaches high school. I'm hoping I don't have to tell him he can't play because I fear for his brain when he turns 40. I'm hoping the people in charge have taken drastic steps to ensure the game goes on for generations. But if it remains as dangerous as it is today, I'm installing a basketball hoop."

Former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who spent 7 seasons as a member of the St. Louis Rams, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, and Buffalo Bills before retiring early to pursue a Masters in creative writing tweets that he and his wife have already decided their three young boys will never play organized football. At Slate, Josh Levin argues Seau's death could finally "make NFL fans and Commissioner Roger Goodell stop and think about what they might be abetting." Fans can and will continue to cheer on the home team, but they should know what they're cheering for.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.