NFL Must Lead Charge Against Dirty Hits

With Junior Seau's death, the NFL's lawsuit over its failure to address concussions draws a little nearer. Before then, the NFL should finally and publicly acknowledge the scope of the problem. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The San Diego County medical officer ruled Junior Seau’s death a suicide Thursday. Though many questions surrounding his death remain, Seau’s gunshot wound to the chest bears ominous similarity to that of former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest in 2011 so that his brain might be preserved for scientific study.

As if the drug addiction, dementia, mental illness and violent behavioral changes common to people suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy weren’t enough, Seau’s and Duerson’s decisions add another layer of horror to the reality of former football players. They don’t just suffer through CTE’s degeneration – they’re completely aware of it as it happens.

It seems NFL players know full well that something’s gone wrong, and that they can’t do anything about it. No person deserves that fate.

It’s only a matter of time before scientists conclusively link CTE with playing in the NFL. With every new former NFL player’s brain studied, the inevitable lawsuit against the NFL looms a little closer. Lawyers don’t want to blow an opportunity to take a bite out of the NFL’s $9 billion revenue machine, so they’ll hold off the lawsuit until the verdict becomes all-but-guaranteed.

When that day comes, the NFL will change drastically. Diminished salaries, smaller rosters, league-wide contractions – anything’s possible depending on the scope of the verdict.

For the NFL to survive, Roger Goodell needs to take charge of this problem now. The penalties instituted for dirty hits last year were a start, but they need to be ramped up a step further, and they should be cumulative: every helmet-to-helmet hit, every hit on a defenseless receiver or hands to the face needs to be tallied, and each subsequent violation must result in a harsher penalty.

NBA players can only receive 15 technical fouls in a season before they start receiving automatic suspensions. The NFL should institute a similar policy, but the accumulation should cover a player’s career, as is the case with positive steroid tests in baseball. After all, dirty hits are a form of cheating, just like steroids.

The NFL should also begin fining players who lead with their helmets on offense. They may feel invincible inside their massive helmets, but every running back or receiver who sticks his neck out puts him and anyone around him in danger. Illegal hits have an unpredictable element to them, and always blaming the defensive player doesn’t fully address the problem.

Once these rules are in place, the NFL must publicly explain why. They must tell their fans that football is a uniquely dangerous sport. Football players face a far greater risk of neurological damage than their compatriots do in baseball, basketball and even hockey.

Of course, football “purists” (or “old conservative jackasses,” if you’re not one yourself) will complain: The NFL coddles its players too much. They’re watering down the league. They treat players like “little girls” (or some equally misogynist term). They’ve lost touch with the fans.

Screw ’em. Let ’em piss and moan.

NFL fans don’t take the concussion problem seriously because for years the league didn’t take it seriously. Instead, Paul Tagliabue and Goodel denied every accusation, discredited every scientific study and distanced themselves from every former athlete whose life had turned to sludge.

But what if the NFL reversed themselves and admitted football’s dangers? What if they said they didn’t want their former employees dying in their mid-40s, broke, depressed and alone? What if they said, “We don’t want our athletes killing themselves horribly for our entertainment?”

If the NFL did that, I have to believe any fan with even a scrap of humanity would understand. Any person with a family member with Alzheimer’s, anyone who’s lost a friend to drugs, anyone with a kid who can throw the pigskin – how could they turn against a league that acknowledges its mistakes and makes a true effort to fix them?

Of course, football’s lunatic fringe will still bitch about the lost “manliness” of the sport. And such measures won’t help the NFL on the day the lawyers come screamin’. “Had the league done this 20 years ago,” they’ll say, “our clients’ lives wouldn’t have been ruined.”

But by finally acknowledging football’s causal relationship with CTE and then leading the charge in the opposite direction, the NFL might secure its fan-base enough that should they have to pay, the fans will be right there to help them get back on their feet.

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