NFL Player's Death Highlights Brain Injuries

Junior Seau's suicide this week adds more fodder to the questions around the NFL and player safety. Audie Cornish talks with sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about Seau and the league's ongoing lawsuits from other players and their families.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The premature death of an athlete is always shocking, but these days, pointed questions abound whenever a former NFL player dies. The suicide this week of Junior Seau, age 43, once again raised concerns about head injuries in football. He had played 20 seasons in the NFL, only leaving the field two years ago. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So to start, for those of us who, you know, don't know the full story of this player, tell us about him. I mean, I'm reading that he's being called one of the greatest all-around linebackers maybe ever. I mean, what was he like on the field?

FATSIS: Well, he played the bulk of his career for the San Diego Chargers. They drafted him fifth overall in 1990 out of Southern California, also played for the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots, a 12-time All Pro. He was ferocious on the field. He coupled that with a lot of dancing and fist-pumping theatrics. And he stayed in the NFL a long, long time. Twenty years is a remarkably long career.

CORNISH: Stefan, we should say that Junior Seau's death has been ruled a suicide, but that he did not leave any sort of note that we're aware of. At the same time, I have yet to see a sportswriter talk about this without mentioning the ongoing discussion in NFL about traumatic brain injury.

FATSIS: The reason for that is the way Seau killed himself: he shot himself in the chest. And two other retired NFL players killed themselves exactly in this manner, specifically so that their brains could be studied after their deaths for the existence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, which is this degenerative disease of the brain that can be caused by repeated head trauma, as you get in football, and has been linked to depression, dementia, other behavioral problems.

And that's relevant in Seau's case because of those 20 years that he played in the NFL, which means he played football for about 30 years. That's 30 years of jolts to the brain, and that's going to come up in any death of an NFL player prematurely.

CORNISH: Now, we're learning this week also that his family may allow his brain to be studied, and we don't know if this was Seau's intent to have his brain studied. I mean, what's going to happen here?

FATSIS: Well, it appears that, yeah, Seau's family has given permission for a forensic analysis of his brain. There are two groups that have been doing this on dead athletes, not just football players. The pathologist who first identified physical evidence of CTE in the brains of dead football players - Bennet Omalu - he participated in Seau's autopsy in San Diego. There's another group at Boston University that's also asked to analyze Seau's brain. That will take weeks. Longer term, every brain that's studied for evidence of this sort of disease is critical to get a deeper scientific understanding of the damage caused by football and other contact sports.

CORNISH: At this point, what does it say that any occurrence like this, this kind of death, brings to the forefront this discussion about the NFL and football in general?

FATSIS: Oh, I think it's important for the NFL because it does threaten its hegemony as America's most popular sport. Those metrics aren't going to change overnight. But there is this reasonable threat that people are going to start thinking about the NFL differently. You had this week the former NFL MVP quarterback Kurt Warner said he prefer it if his sons didn't play football. And just today, The New York Times has a profile of the widow of Ray Easterling who played nine years in the NFL, and is one of those players who shot himself in the chest two weeks ago at age 62. Easterling's widow describes her husband's 20-year medical decline in that New York Times story. She says she's going to continue a legal fight on behalf of Easterling against the NFL.

CORNISH: And that's not the only lawsuit going on, right, Stefan?

FATSIS: No. Easterling was the lead plaintiff in the first lawsuit filed by ex-players. Those lawsuits are claiming that the league failed to inform them of the dangers of concussions, the risks of traumatic brain disease. There are now 68 cases, about 1,800 former NFL players as plaintiffs. The number just grows every week. Another one was just filed yesterday in Atlanta. The league's position is that it never attempted to mislead players. The lawsuits are barred under collective bargaining. It's going to take years, obviously, to litigate this stuff. But again, it's this drip, drip, drip that is changing how we think about football.

CORNISH: Stefan, thank you so much for talking to us.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis is the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL." He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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