Junior Seau: Changes Are Still Needed to Protect Players from Brain Injuries

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Junior Seau: Changes Are Still Needed to Protect Players from Brain Injuries
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I consider myself to be old school. I like big hits and I’m willing to admit it. I also have an objection to many of the NFL’s rules that are supposed to protect players from serious injury.  

I don’t think it was a big deal that Robert Griffin III was left in the game or that Justin Smith will play this weekend. Injuries are part of the sport.

There are a lot of different types of injuries in football. Muscular, ligament, tendon and bone injuries are among them. There is another type of injury is unlike the others: traumatic brain injuries. Brain injuries can’t be repaired by Dr. James Andrews. Brain injuries don’t just impact a player’s ability to walk in their 60s, but the ability to function at all in their 40s.

The NFL can do a lot to protect the players with rules, helmet technology and research, but nothing is going to completely remove the concussion risk when two men collide running at full speed. The risk will always be there and that’s why players need to learn to protect each other and themselves.

In light of Junior Seau’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosis, Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated quoted Seau’s former teammate Fred McCrary who described how both men ignored concussion symptoms. Think about how things might have been different if the two players protected each other and themselves by telling the team trainers. Maybe Seau doesn’t develop CTE and commit suicide.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Fred McCrary once cracked a helmet in a collision with Junior Seau.

Provided the team doctors took the brain injuries seriously like they are supposed to today, there’s a chance that the outcome may have been different for Seau. Changing the culture inside NFL locker rooms is going to be just as important as anything the NFL can do to protect the players.

If players really care about each other they are going to modify their behavior. That’s what the rule changes are all about, but is that approach working? Is that approach good for the integrity of the game of football? These are questions that should be asked and for which there are no definitive answers.

Traumatic brain injury is truly a problem that must be attacked from as many angles as possible. It’s a problem that runs deeper than just the NFL and something that could threaten the game of football if everyone isn’t working together to find a solution. The most important link in the chain isn’t the league, but the players.

Playing football is a livelihood and not every player makes millions per year.  Players will conceal injuries to provide for their families and I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same. That’s what makes this such a difficult issue. Seau could sit out games, but not a guy that was struggling to get playing time or the last guy on the roster.

Players always knew that by playing football there was a chance that they’d be crippled by arthritis when they were older. Few players knew that ignoring headaches and playing through blurred vision might later give them a degenerative brain disease that could lead to dementia, memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.

Are players more likely to take themselves out of a game with a brain injury than they were five years ago? Even this knowledge might not be enough to stop a player from making sacrifices to take care of his family. That’s why other steps must be taken to make the game safer.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Pop Warner kids wear their helmets at a Chargers game.

One common sense initiative would be to educate youth coaches on the importance of proper fundamentals. The lack of fundamentals has bubbled up from the youth levels, through college and into the NFL. Far too many players don’t use proper tackling technique and thus subject themselves and their opponents to increased injury risk.

Some people have suggested that taking away helmets might correct this problem, but like boxing without a helmet, that could get bloody. Helmets are still needed to avoid skull fracture, broken noses and other wounds. That doesn’t mean changes to equipment won’t make a difference. The majority of players are probably still wearing the same helmet that was designed long ago.

Imagine a golfer using the same clubs as 20 years ago on the PGA tour or a NASCAR driver driving the same car they used 20 years ago. This simply doesn’t make sense and the NFL needs to do more to get players into safer helmets.

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Helmet technology is only going to improve over time, but manufacturers need monetary incentive to continue development. It seems that these new helmets aren’t making their way into the NFL fast enough.

Despite my objections to the rules, I understand that the NFL has to do as much as possible on this issue. Do the rules disproportionately protect some players and not others? Yes. Are the players being protected also the ones that generate the most revenue for the NFL? Probably, but some rule changes still make sense.

In NASCAR they have restrictor plates to slow down the cars and require certain safety equipment. There are rules and equipment that have been used to make racing safer, but some people say these changes have also hurt the popularity of the sport. The NFL will want to avoid the same results.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done in many cases. There's an unfortunate chance we'll hear more tragic stories like Seau's in the future. This is not a battle that is won even if there is a pending lawsuit about it. This is a war that the NFL, the players and football fans at every level will need to continue to fight.

If you are a dad, get involved and make sure your Pop Warner teams are using proper tackling technique and award for that instead of big hits. If you’ve got the spare funds, buy your team new helmets to replace the ones that have been reused for years. If you are a player at any level, protect yourself, teammates and opponents by reporting concussion symptoms.

You can’t tough-out a brain injury.

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