05.04.12

Junior Seau’s Suicide Circus: Why We Love the Violence of Football

Junior Seau was a ferocious warrior in the vicious game of football. Buzz Bissinger on why fans and the media will never admit that violence is why we love watching the NFL.

The ghoul patrol had been up early laying siege to the house of former NFL all-pro linebacker Junior Seau, encircling it with their microphones and digital tape recorders and cameras. The previous day, Seau had been found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest at the age of 43. The presence of the media at his home was typical. It’s a tradition to honor the dead by trampling on the privacy of the living who loved him. Much of that time is spent milling around and looking at your watch and wishing for a cup of coffee, but there is a method to the en masse intrusion and utter disregard for what relatives are going through:

Much like setting fire to a house with the obvious intent of rousing the inhabitants, the family will have no choice but to come out and say something.

If you asked reporters why they were there, they would give some mumbo-jumbo reason that as hard as it may be, it was important to get reaction from the family in a case as sad and stunning as this one. Seau had been an absolute force during the prime of his playing days with the San Diego Chargers, ferocious, relentless, maniacal, beyond intense. Now that he was dead, it would be easy to say he was a joy to watch. But he wasn’t a joy to watch. He was scary to watch, just like the National Football League is scary to watch, which is one of the primary reasons we love to watch it, a human car crash on every play.

Given that fans are now acting as if they are just discovering that the game is not only unremittingly violent but unremittingly dangerous (was it really that f---ing hard to figure out?), no one will admit any more they love football for that very reason—22 players on every play either trying to destroy one another or escape destruction. It isn’t the first time that a nation has lied to itself in the hopes of being on the right side of the angels. It won’t be the last. To say that you love football because it is primal and vicious and visceral is to say that you are in favor of early Alzheimer’s, or constant and debilitating headaches, or severe depression, or even suicide.

And nobody is going to come near that now, not after extensive research into the alleged dangers of repetitive concussions, not after the suicides of two other players, not after the New Orleans Saints’ “bountygate,” and certainly not after the death of Junior Seau. The game that we love can no longer be loved. It must now be treated with righteous outrage, and Seau's death played right into that regardless of how little we know for what caused it and will likely ever know for what caused it.

Seau had been an absolute force during the prime of his playing days with the San Diego Chargers, ferocious, relentless, maniacal, beyond intense.

The reporters outside the house of Junior Seau didn’t really care about the feelings of his family. The literal second that his death had been made public, the psychic factory whistle blew and the assembly line of the death-by-football narrative went into wartime production. They wanted the family to give them something, at least a little crumb that would no doubt be inflated into a loaf of bread, that Junior Seau had killed himself because of the after-effects of the head trauma he had suffered as a player.

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Buzz Bissinger on why he thinks college football should be banned

If it was a good day and the reporters were lucky, family members would come forth and help advance that narrative. They would blast the NFL for not caring about players. They would say they knew without a shadow of doubt that Junior was the latest in a string of former NFL players who had killed themselves because of the physical violence they had gone through during their careers and the onset of brain damage common to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. They would talk about the withering depression that had been his constant suffering.

Actually it didn’t really matter what the family had to say or not. It was little more than icing on the cake and if the icing turned out to be too sweet or too sour, it would just be discarded.

On April 19, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit brought by former players over the dangers of concussions they maintain had been concealed during their careers, had died of what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The previous year, Dave Duerson had also killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Duerson had left a note saying he wanted his brain to be studied to see if it had significant brain trauma, and a later autopsy showed that he did.

Police ruled that Seau too had killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Unlike Duerson he left no note. Nor had he shown any sustained signs of outward depression, laughing and smiling and exuding charm at a charity golf tournament earlier in the week. It seemed possible that he had killed himself because he had killed himself, as too many people tragically do, and nobody would ever know the reason.

But once again, none of that mattered. The fact that Easterling had shot himself in the chest and Duerson had shot himself in the chest and Seau had shot himself in the chest was more than enough to ratchet up the red verbal flags of outrage. The implication was obvious, or at least the media decided it was obvious, that Seau had killed himself in the manner he did to preserve his brain for study. It was a little bit of a stretch.

It was a ridiculous stretch actually, at least at this juncture, but writers adeptly worked their way around it. “Ignore the NFL Draft. Ignore offseason mini-camps. Ignore the latest free agent signings,” wrote Josh Levin in Slate. “There’s only one thing worth talking about in pro football right now, and Junior Seau just reminded us what that is.”

“There was no suicide note, and we won’t know what, if any, statement the future Hall of Famer, just 43 years old, was trying to make. But it seems as if Seau was trying to tell us something about the game of football that we love so much,” wrote Vittorio Tafur in his blog on SfGate.com.

They were just a tiny smattering of the columns basically pounding the point that football, and not a self-inflicted gunshot wound, had killed Junior Seau. Given that such a conclusion had already been reached, it seemed almost silly for reporters to lie in wait outside the Seau home in Oceanside, California. But obligation is obligation. And it has its rewards.

Members of Seau’s family did come forward. But what they said didn’t help the narrative very much. Seau’s mother, beyond distraught to the point where watching her felt like the worst kind of unseemly and shameful voyeurism, said she was “shocked” that her son had been found dead. She offered no clues of depression.

She was followed by Seau’s sister Annett, who wore a simple red V-neck sweater. She was obviously in pain, but like the sweater she carried herself with unadorned dignity, and she obviously hoped to preserve the dignity of the other members of her family.

“On behalf of my brothers, my sisters, especially my parents, we would appreciate as a family you give us some kind of privacy,” she said. But you felt sorry for her when she said those words, because you knew it was never going to happen.

Then she said something else.

“I know the media. I’m sorry but I know you guys. You guys will overblow this.”

It was the most cogent statement in the whole horrible clusterf--k of Junior Seau’s death that was less than two days old, but it too was a statement in vain.

It really screwed up the narrative. So it would be ignored, discarded, thrown into the bin of irrelevance. The narrative would press onward—football had killed Junior Seau and therefore football was evil.

The game was a menace to a society and something would have to be done about it. At least until the renewal of a new season and we would undoubtedly revert back to the countrymen we are, engorged like a tick in a game of unbridled violence in the most violent country on earth, our cries of bloodlust a little bit more muted perhaps, but still very much within our hearts when pro player A hits the snot out of pro player B and only one man is left standing. As for Junior Seau, or Dave Duerson, or Ray Easterling, would we truly invoke the memory of any of them when we watch? Don’t be silly.

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