NFL Rocked By 'Bounty' Scandal, Death Of Seau

News recently broke that New Orleans Saints' coaches were giving bonuses to their players for hard hits. The NFL responded by suspending coaches and now, players. The sports world was also shocked by the apparent suicide of Junior Seau, who played for the San Diego Chargers. Host Michel Martin talks with sports reporters Dave Zirin and Pablo Torre.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, many people were shocked last year when Robert Champion Jr., the drum major of a legendary Florida college marching band died after what was described as a hazing incident. Hazing is not something most people associated with a marching band experience. Now, a large group of his fellow band mates are facing serious consequences. We'll find out more in a few minutes.

But first, we want to go from the sidelines to the football field itself. Even though football season is still months away, the NFL was very much in the headlines yesterday. First, the league announced that it is suspending four players without pay for their role in the New Orleans Saint bounty scandal. That's where players were apparently paid for hard hits on opponents.

And then just hours later came news about the apparent death by suicide of Junior Seau. He'd played most of his career for his hometown San Diego Chargers. He was picked to play in 12 Pro Bowls, that's the NFL all-star game. In addition to his on field exploits, Seau was also famous for his constant smile, outgoing personality, and extensive community service work with children. And now, some are raising questions again about whether brain injury may have played a role in his tragic death.

We wanted to talk about all of this, so we've called upon two of our regular sports analysts. Pablo Torre is a writer for Sports Illustrated. Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation magazine, and they're both regular guests in our Barbershop roundtable which is on most Fridays. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

DAVE ZIRIN: It's great to be here. Thank you.

PABLO TORRE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Pablo, let me just start with you. What are your memories about Junior Seau and did you - what went through your mind when you heard about his death?

TORRE: I was shocked. And we've seen guys - Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling - very recently in the last 15 months commit suicide. But Junior Seau is by far the biggest name, I think, to the casual fan. A superstar full stop, an elite linebacker, a guy who was the Michael Jordan of American Samoa, in some ways. Samoa has produced so many NFL players. He was the guy everybody looked up to and he was a guy who was pretty much equally beloved in the United States. A guy whose kindness has been remembered in recent hours by pretty much everybody who came in contact with him.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin, what about you? What crossed your mind?

ZIRIN: Well, obviously shock was the first emotion to cross my mind. I had met Mr. Seau once, and he had a kind of charismatic gravitational pull that you only find very seldomly, I think, in life. And my first thought, though, was about two years ago, a story about Junior Seau driving his car off a bridge after - off of a cliff, I'm sorry - after being investigated for a domestic violence complaint by his live-in girlfriend at the time.

And I thought about that story and remembered that the police took Seau at his word that he was just asleep at the wheel and it was just a horrible accident and he was fine. And thinking at the time, wow, if there was ever a city that would give Junior Seau a pass, it would be San Diego and sometimes giving somebody a pass is the most dangerous thing you can do for them.

MARTIN: But you were also telling us earlier, and we've been talking a lot on this program about the whole question of brain injury and the possible connection to suicide. And, you know, obviously, we don't know all the details. You know, we don't know whether any note was left or whether there had been sort of medical, private medical issues that have not yet come to the surface.

But the elephant in the room, as Pablo just talked about, was the fact that there have been a number of suicides of NFL players recently. Ray Easterling who played for the Atlanta Falcons took his own life a few weeks ago. Last year, Dave Duerson left a suicide note asking examiners to study his brain, and they found extensive signs of damage related to blows to the head. And so, Dave, you know, I just have to ask...

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...is that being discussed here? I know the advocates around brain injury issues in the NFL have been talking about this online. I've seen a lot of discussion online. What are some of the reasons why they're talking about this?

ZIRIN: Oh, one of the reasons why they're discussing it so much is the manner in which Junior Seau took his own life.

TORRE: Mm-hmm.

ZIRIN: Which was a gunshot to the chest, which is in the exact manner in which Dave Duerson took his own life - very explicitly by Dave Duerson - because he said he wanted his brain to be able to be studied. So to have Seau kill himself in the same manner was something people immediately raised questions about. Like was he having issues with brain injuries? And then...

MARTIN: Is there a record of concussion? Did he have a record of brain injury that we know about?

ZIRIN: This is what was so shocking to me as I was looking into it. Junior Seau played for two decades in the National Football League, was known for his ferocious hits. There is not one public note of him being diagnosed with a concussion in all that time. And you see that, you can only draw one of two conclusions. Either Junior Seau was somehow made of magic to be able to go 20 years without getting a concussion in the National Football League or it just was not reported when it happened, which meant it wasn't treated.

Now, whether that happened because of Junior Seau not wanting it to get out or whether it was team doctors, whatever it is, it speaks to the kind of neglect towards the issue of head injuries that's existed in the NFL until recently for all too long.

MARTIN: Pablo, before we turn the page and talk about the other big NFL news today, I wanted to ask whether you see any signs of a cultural shift perhaps among players. Because, as Dave indicated, there's a two-way street here. There are perhaps, you know, owners, managers, doctors who might be invested in not being as aggressive about this, but there are also players who don't want to be taken out of the game. Are you seeing any signs that players themselves are thinking more about this?

TORRE: Yes. I think the only, you know, there is no better warning than to see a peer, a guy who seemed so invulnerable, kill himself. I mean, that's really the only way to get through to an NFL player, I think. You know, to cut past all of the other issues here - the machismo, the stigma, all of that.

And I also note, on top of what Dave was saying, was that there's also the other, other elephant in the room which is just mental illness. The Venn diagram of mental illness and head trauma, you know, they aren't completely overlapping all the time. We don't know yet what the cause was, but in either situation, whether it was just, quote-unquote, "just mental illness" or CTE, there's brain trauma. Either way, those are two endemic problems in sports that really need to be addressed.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with sports journalists Pablo Torre, that's who was speaking just now, and Dave Zirin. We're talking about the death of NFL great Junior Seau, apparently at his own hand. We also want to talk about the big suspensions handed out yesterday in the New Orleans Saints bounty case. Dave, you have a final thought about this?

ZIRIN: Just a major shift I've seen even in the last five years is when I ask NFL players, would you want your son playing this game?

TORRE: Right.

ZIRIN: They all pause now and many of them say no. That's very different.

MARTIN: Well, so turning the page, even though it really is a kind of a related story, the NFL has been handing out big penalties to the New Orleans Saints for the so-called bounty scandal. That's where players were paid bonuses for things like hard hits or even knocking other players out of games. So, Dave, tell us about the latest developments and how are these being viewed within the league?

ZIRIN: Suspensions have been handed down to four players who were on that New Orleans Saints team, even though 27 apparently were implicated. Only two of those players still play for the Saints at this time: Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, who had the stiffest penalty. He's out for the entire season. And Scott Fujita, who has been a very outspoken player on the issue of player safety, has been suspended for three games for the Cleveland Browns, as well as a player named Anthony Hargrove who plays for the Green Bay Packers. Now, it's being viewed with a lot of shock around the NFL.

MARTIN: And by whom? You mean players?

ZIRIN: By players and the media.

MARTIN: The media.

ZIRIN: For two reasons is the big shock. The first is that, by all accounts, the players heard about it on ESPN Sports Center. They weren't informed by the league that they were suspended and that was seen as quite the slap to the face. And the second thing that really just absolutely floored people was that, according to all accounts, the players never got to see the evidence that had been accumulated against them. And they've all said they're going to appeal, but the appeal is to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

MARTIN: The same person who made the decision. Dave, I know you have an opinion about this, so I'm going to go to Pablo first and then I'll give you a minute to give your opinion about this. Pablo, what's your take on this? Do you think that those are fair? What are you hearing?

TORRE: I mean, I don't think - well, I guess on the topic of evidence that's something that I don't know if it could ever be resolved. I mean, I don't think players were receiving receipts. They weren't itemizing bounty payouts on their tax returns. So I don't know if that could ever be produced, which is just adding to the problem.

But, whether it's fair or not, I think the larger conclusion is that it's in line with what Roger Goodell is trying to do, which is deter this behavior from ever happening again. And I think in that frame of mind, he has no problem suspending Jonathan Vilma for an entire year, or Scott Fujita. He's going after guys who are outspoken, who are leaders. That was his stated justification.

He wants to target - in an ironic way, to use one of Gregg Williams, the disgraced offensive coordinator of the Saints, one of his phrases - he's going after the head. He's going after guys who are faces and names and people who are most prominent in an effort to make sure that a bounty program, targeted injuries just don't happen ever again. Now, whether that can happen is another question.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin, I know you have an opinion about this, and you've been very skeptical about this, I guess, putting the onus on players. Tell us why.

ZIRIN: Strongly skeptical. I'm skeptical of it for a couple of reasons. I mean, the first is that, by many, many accounts, this occurs in a lot of locker rooms around the NFL, and has been a part of the NFL culture for more than a few decades.

And coming down this hard on one particular team, the New Orleans Saints - and the players, in particular - to me feels like an effort by Roger Goodell to much more send a message, send a message to fans, send a message to people who see the NFL as family-friendly entertainment, and send a message to the legal and judicial community because, right now, more than 1,000 former NFL players are suing the NFL because of issues that deal with withholding knowledge about the effects of head injuries.

And, to me, it's not an honest way to go about the issue, because head injuries in the NFL happen because the sport is football, not because of bounties.

MARTIN: So is there any way to make it safer? Is there any way to - I'm just - what would be the Dave Zirin approach, here, if you don't agree with Roger Goodell's?

ZIRIN: Well...

MARTIN: Briefly, if you would.

ZIRIN: I think that the right approach has to be a full knowledge and full discussion about what are the effects of actually playing in the National Football League, because that's what we don't have right now.

I think Roger Goodell should settle with the players who are suing the league, get that off the table right away instead of fight it to the degree to which they are fighting it, and that they need to start to address the issue about, OK, what are the real ramifications of playing in the National Football League, so parents with kids and so players can make informed decisions about when they play. Because, I mean, I've just talked to too many retired players who say if I knew now what I knew then. And that's what I think we want to eliminate.

MARTIN: Ironically, still the most popular sport in America.

TORRE: The NFL doesn't want to know. They don't want to know the answer to that. I mean, that's just the problem.

ZIRIN: Hey, I was asked for the Dave Zirin way. OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, to be continued. Pablo Torre is a writer for Sports Illustrated. He was with us from our bureau in New York City. Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation. He was with us from our studios here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

TORRE: Thank you.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

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