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Shutdown Corner

NFL’s statement on Seau’s CTE condition shows a total disconnect from its own negligent past

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

Perhaps the saddest and most unfortunate aspect of the Thursday news that former NFL linebacker Junior Seau suffered from a neurological condition common to individuals who have had repeated head trauma was that it did not come as a surprise. Seau committed suicide on May 2, 2012, and his family asked that the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., examine his brain for signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which manifests itself in many cases with instances of memory loss, depression, and dementia.

[Report: Junior Seau suffered from CTE]

On Thursday, it was revealed that Seau did indeed suffer from the condition, which has caused other former football players, and other athletes in general, to take their own lives -- or exist under horrific conditions. Seau, who started more than 250 games in his NFL career, was never once diagnosed with a concussion, nor was he ever listed as having a concussion on any medical or injury report, according to Gina Seau, the NFL veteran's widow.

"The difference with Junior ... from an emotional standpoint [was] how detached he became emotionally," Gina Seau told ABC News. "It was so obvious to me because early, many, many years ago, he used to be such a phenomenal communicator. If there was a problem in any relationship, whether it was between us or a relationship with one of his coaches or teammates or somewhere in the business world, he would sit down and talk about it."

Those sorts of personality switches are common and well-documented in cases of CTE. Judging from the NFL's statement in response to the Seau diagnosis, you'd think that the league has been on the cutting edge of this issue for years.

"We appreciate the Seau family’s cooperation with the National Institutes of Health," the NFL said in a statement. "The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE. The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels.

"The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it."

Yes, but here's the key: The NFL is "doing it" now only because it has to. For decades, the NFL was most certainly not "doing it" at all. In fact, the league did all it could to obfuscate the issue and tried its level best to sidetrack any connection between head injuries and long-term brain trauma. The NFL now faces lawsuits from more than 4,000 retired players.

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Roger Goodell gets grilled on Capitol Hill in October of 2009. (Getty Images)

In October 2009, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sat in front of the House Judiciary Committee and refused to acknowledge that connection at all. He was rightfully excoriated by the panel as a result.

"We've heard from the NFL time and time again -- you're always 'studying,' you're always 'trying,' you're 'hopeful," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Caif.), whose husband played in the NFL. "I want to know what are you doing ... to deal with this problems and other problems related to injuries?"

When Goodell said that it was a priority for the league to take care of its retired players, Waters cut him off and threatened to look into the NFL's antitrust exemption.

[Rewind: Junior Seau's death further saddens his 1994 Chargers teammates]

The NFL has taken some steps to right previous wrongs after that specific intimidation, but most are simply cosmetic. The league still does not have independent neurologists on every team's sideline, and after Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy went back into a December 2011 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after he was obviously concussed by Steelers linebacker James Harrison, the NFL responded by saying that independent neurologists -- i.e., doctors not paid and employed by teams -- would simply confuse the issue.

"Independent experts on sidelines would make [the] situation worse, unless they had a baseline exam on each player," Richard Ellenbogen, co-chair of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, told Jarrett Bell of USA Today Sports in November 2012. "No one knows the players as well as the athletic trainers, period.

"Having said that, some teams already have neurosurgeons on the sidelines. Having a doc show up just for a game takes away from the all-important baseline exam and continuity of care. It would be like getting operated upon by a surgeon who did not see you pre-operatively. Is that safer than having someone who saw you beforehand? The baseline is all important in making an assessment if a player is OK after a hit."

[Rewind: Junior Seau was gregarious, ebullient, hilarious and immensely popular]

To answer those questions with another set of questions, what's wrong with giving an independent neurologist those baseline results? What's wrong with working with a pool of unbiased neuro-specialists hired and co-paid by the NFL and the NFL Players' Association, and staying the hall out of their way when they say that players must sit, or risk further injury? And when will the NFL, who recently abdicated all responsibility for the condition of the turf at FedEx Field that contributed to the serious injuries of at least two players, make care for its players more than lip service? When will the NFL establish a uniform set of conditions when it comes to the safety of its players in all aspects, and stop thinking that fining defenders will solve everything?

In a league that currently banks almost $10 billion per year, and will double that as the result of lucrative television deals by the end of the decade, it seems a small price to pay.

Especially when so many players are still paying the ultimate price.

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