Former NFL linebacker Junior Seau took his own life a few days ago, for reasons that are not clear even to his loved ones. It is believed that Seau suffered multiple concussions during his 13-year career in the NFL (not to mention playing football in high school and starting 3 years at USC), although no official diagnosis has been made that he had suffered long-term effects from his playing career. Long-term effects from his playing career might be at fault, since Seau's brain can soon be tested postmortem for CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which may have affected him and his decision to take his own life; Seau may have known he was suffering in some way, because he shot himself in the chest, like another former NFL player, Dave Duerson, who is widely believed to have murdered himself in that fashion so that his brain could be tested for CTE.
Even if the late Junior Seau is diagnosed with CTE, it doesn't necessarily prove that he took his life due to his head trauma. I don't believe that question can ever be truly answered, but if Seau did suffer from CTE then there's no question in my mind that a class-action lawsuit of some kind will be filed against the NFL in the near future, on behalf of former players and the families of former players who maintain that a career playing football led to deliberating and permanent disorders like CTE, Parkinson's disease and early-onset Alzheimer's. I'm not going to how this is all going to play out, but I'm more than just a little certain that, when it comes to lawsuits involving brain trauma, the NFL and the WWE are in the same boat.
Two names come to mind when it comes to head trauma and the WWE: Chris Benoit and Mick Foley. Tests on Benoit's brain show he suffered from CTE; I'm not even going to speculate how much that kind of brain damage led to travesty of his final hours, but I believe it would be naive at best to say that it had no effect. Yet there's Mick Foley, who appears to be a happy and intelligent man with all of his mental faculties in full effect, even after matches like this:
I watched the I Quit match before posting -- I never watched the match from beginning to end before, although I've seen clips -- and it's funny how the announcers mention Foley suffering from a recent concussion before this match, as well as Jerry Lawyer saying, "You know, (Mick Foley) has had so many concussions, he probably doesn't even remember he got splashed by the 500 pounds of Mable." This probably isn't the first time Foley has been repeatedly bashed in the skull within a week of getting a concussion, but it's a wonder that Foley can put two sentences together after the career he had, let alone write 3 novels.
There are some people out there grappling with the ethical dilemma of watching a sport where their fellow human beings are purposefully damaging each other in a way that has a chance to lead to CTE or other forms of mental or physical handicap; you could be talking about football or pro wrestling or boxing or mixed-martial arts, but suffice it to say you aren't talking about tennis or golf. I am not one of those people, though. While I do believe that anyone who makes a career out of playing a combat sport like football or pro wrestling are at high risk of CTE and other forms of brain damage, I will continue to watch the NFL in general and the Seattle Seahawks in particular, as well as WWE programming for these reasons:
- Most football players and wrestlers appear to get through their careers without debilitating physical and/or mental injuries.
- They are handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
- The benefits of these careers go beyond money: there are the scholarships kids can get for football and amateur wrestling, the camaraderie of playing for a team/performing with other wrestlers, becoming famous and using that fame to help people in need, and the personal exhilaration of success.
- Even if you were to explain the risks that a long career in either field might lead to, I'm confident a grand majority of football players and wrestlers would still decide to participate.
- If you took away all the sports and activities that could risk your life or well-being -- not only football and pro wrestling but also surfing, sky diving, cliff diving, skiing, snowboarding and other stuff like that -- then the world would be a much duller place.
But just because I continue to watch doesn't mean I don't care about the participant's safety; I'm glad that the WWE has recently all but banned chair shots to the head and other moves that could cause concussions, just like the NFL has mandated helmets and other protective gear be worn during games (the NFL has also created rules about a player's return for a concussion, and have doctor's prescribe specific tests for a player to pass before he's cleared to return). Preventive measures can only go so far, since many (or even most) concussions are caused not by a single harsh assault on the head, but by repeated-yet-low-intensity blows, the kind most football players and wrestlers easily endure a dozen or more times a game/match.
It is a tragedy whenever anyone takes their life, especially if there was a chance that that person could have been saved. Both the NFL and the WWE needs to be more proactive about mental health (and not just wait for the lawsuits to be filed), and the best way to do that is to provide CAT or PET scans (or whatever is the best way to check for brain damage) for ALL CURRENT AND FORMER PLAYERS/WRESTLERS, and to provide treatment and/or counseling for anyone suffering long-term effects. These companies can't just sit idly by and wait for a Junior Seau or a Chris Benoit to self-destruct.
Hopefully a test for CTE on a living brain can soon be found, and current safety measures will helps significantly decrease the amount of brain injuries that currently occur in both sports. But there are many that still suffer in silence, and many who self-medicate their pain from a career in football or pro wrestling by abusing alcohol and/or pain medication. Can Vince McMahon and Roger Goodell really look into the mirror and say that they did everything that could have been done to protect the safety of these players? Did they, or coaches or team doctors, even encourage/persuade/outright demand a player go back onto the field or ring while still exhibiting the effects of a concussion, like memory loss or extreme sensitivity to light or painful migraines? Maybe they can plead ignorance, and maybe that's a good enough reason that the NFL and WWE shouldn't be sued out of existence, but I believe there's a moral responsibility that these companies have to select few participants who have been critically affected by their careers, and should do the right thing now and go out and provide the assistance they desperately need.