Linda Robertson: Junior Seau study highlights risk acceptance

01/11/2013 12:01 AM

01/11/2013 2:58 AM

As the NFL accelerates toward its climax with a weekend of collision-course playoff games, Ray Lewis is eager to record more greatest hits on Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

Anything to forestall retirement. While Lewis dances toward the end of his career, does he ever pause to think about Junior Seau, another linebacker who personified the position?

Lewis might have flinched Thursday when he heard about the forensic evaluation of Seau’s damaged brain, but he will erase any fear by Saturday. That’s what football players do: Sacrifice the body for the game.

The timing of neurologists’ conclusions on an increasing number of brain autopsies is never good for the NFL, which is being sued by 4,000 former players who say the league failed to warn them about the traumatic effects of concussions.

But how is pro football supposed to reduce violence when violence is precisely why the NFL is the most popular form of entertainment in the United States? Fans clamor for it; players resist attempts to soften it.

Americans are addicted to our smashing stadium spectacles and feel ambivalent about a cure.

The buoyant Seau never met a stranger he didn’t like. Perhaps his story will make a difference.

Seau committed suicide May 2, 2012, by shooting himself in the heart with a .357 Magnum. The beloved San Diego native, Chargers star and ex-Miami Dolphin was 43, two years removed from 20 intense seasons as a pro.

Like Dave Duerson, the ex-Bear who shot himself in the chest in his Sunny Isles Beach condo, Seau spared his head. He knew there was something wrong with his mind. His family donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health, and doctors found the tissue laced with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

CTE, identified in dozens of deceased athletes’ brains during the past decade, causes degeneration from excessive deposits of a protein called tau, which strangles the emotional circuitry of the brain. In 68 cases studied at Boston University, athletes subjected to repeated head trauma suffered from depression, mood swings, lethargy and early signs of dementia, such as forgetfulness and slurred speech. CTE affects the medial temporal lobe, which controls the ability to handle frustrating situations, leading to a rage response or lack of impulse control.

Seau’s friends and relatives said he was not the man they knew toward the end of his life. He found no solace in surfing. He could be nasty, weepy and, most unusual for Seau, silent.

One thing he did talk about was how much he missed football. His ex-wife and children said he was adrift without it.

When the 1972 Dolphins gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their Perfect Season, there was lots of talk about the glory days, little about knee and hip replacements, arthritis, headaches.

Just before he retired, coach Howard Schnellenberger said he was worried about the “fear-mongers killing our game.”

When NFL commissioner Roger “The Sheriff” Goodell tried to enforce non-injurious conduct by handing down stiff punishment for New Orleans Saints who paid bounties for hard hits, he was ridiculed by players and fans and his predecessor threw out the penalties on appeal, making the entire “Bountygate” scandal seem as disingenuous as the NFL’s useless old “What concussions?” medical committee.

Manning returned after missing a season to recover from delicate neck surgery. Tedy Bruschi came back after a stroke. Seau un-retired three times so he could play four more seasons.

Such passion for football illustrates why a definitive connection between CTE and suicide cannot be drawn, at least not yet. Like Duerson, Seau had other risk factors, and losing one’s athletic identity at middle age was a major one. Seau’s parents were from Samoa, which has a high suicide rate. He was dealing with business problems. In 2010, he was arrested for domestic violence against a 25-year-old girlfriend. After he was released, he inexplicably drove off a cliff in Carlsbad, Calif., on his way home.

Duerson, 50, who put forth a cigar-smoking, motorcycle-riding, back-slapping front as a successful businessman, was divorced and bankrupt.

Chronic pain also causes depression, according to Kevin Guskiewicz, chief of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.

The brains studied at BU were from symptomatic people whose families wanted answers for their behavior. Much more research on a bigger sample is needed, said Dr. Robert Cantu of BU’s Center for the Study of CTE and the Sports Legacy Institute.

“With ex-athletes we see a perfect storm for depression,” Cantu said. “They are no longer on a pedestal, hearing the roar of the crowd, feeling the camaraderie of the locker room. There is no question CTE plays a role, but it’s not the only factor.”

A new longitudinal study at CSTE involves 100 NFL players undergoing interviews, spinal taps and imaging tests.

As the NFL playoffs continue and hockey season commences, Cantu understands why athletes embrace risk.

“Smoking is dangerous but 20 percent of the population still smokes, and they are not being paid millions and receiving adulation,” Cantu said. “My advice is don’t play through injury. Take yourself out.”

Seau couldn’t take himself out, and that quality made him a Hall of Fame player. He will have to be inducted posthumously.

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