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Justified or not, Seau's death puts football under question again

I hope football didn't do this.

Did the game Junior Seau loved help take his life? We don't know. We don't know why one of the greatest linebackers of his generation shot himself in the chest Wednesday and died at 43, leaving behind three children. It's entirely possible his demons came from other external factors. Maybe they were always there. We don't know. But given everything we've learned in the past few years about the brain damage caused by repeated head trauma, the immediate reaction is to point the finger at football.

That's the biggest problem the sport has right now. Not bounties. Not performance-enhancing drugs. It's the mounting evidence that repeated shots to the head could be slowly killing football players. Even if it had nothing to do with Seau's death, football has lost the benefit of the doubt. Every time a far-too-young ex-player dies after suffering some sort of mental distress, football will be the prime suspect.

Typically, we try not to dwell on the method of someone's suicide because we fear that might encourage copycats. In Seau's case, it could be important. In 2011, 50-year-old former NFL safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest and died. Only later did we learn why he chose the chest. Duerson had asked family members to donate his brain so doctors could study the long-term effects of multiple concussions. He had shot himself in the chest to leave his brain intact. Duerson's brain wound up in the possession of the Sports Legacy Institute, a foundation started by neurologist Robert Cantu and former Harvard football player Chris Nowinski to study the long-term effects of concussions. In May 2011, Boston University researchers working with the SLI announced that an examination of Duerson's brain showed Duerson had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a trauma-induced disease the researchers had found in the brains of 20 other dead players.

Duerson's family has sued the NFL, claiming the league ignored the link between repeated head trauma and brain damage. Last week, former Cowboys Randy White, Bob Lilly and Rayfield Wright and other former players joined a class-action lawsuit against the NFL on similar grounds.

When an ex-player as young as Seau kills himself, we think of former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot at 44 in 2006. Two months after Waters committed suicide, a forensic pathologist who had studied Waters' brain told The New York Times that the tissue resembled what one would expect in an 85-year-old man in the early stages of Alzheimer's. We also think of Owen Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania defensive end who hanged himself in 2010. When those Boston University researchers examined Thomas' brain, they found the early stages of CTE -- though Thomas was only 21 at the time of his death.

I spent a weekend with Seau in October 2009 filming an episode of his short-lived television show, "Sports Jobs." Junior followed me through the weekend of a Florida-Georgia football game. He could not have been more kind or gracious. He strummed on his ukulele and made fun of my illegible handwriting. Though he was the star of the show -- and though he was squeezing in the taping during an off week from the Patriots -- he never once pulled a diva move. He seemed to be enjoying himself. He certainly didn't seem like someone who would kill himself.

But I didn't know Seau, so I'm not qualified to judge that. He had documented issues. After he was arrested and accused of assaulting his girlfriend during an argument in October 2010, Seau drove his SUV off a cliff. He claimed afterward that he hadn't tried to kill himself. He said he had only fallen asleep at the wheel, but the incident raised red flags.

Did football cause all of that? We don't know. Maybe it's a convenient excuse. Or maybe almost 30 years (including high school, college and pro football) of repeated shots to the head did permanent damage. As a linebacker, he collided with a blocker or a ballcarrier on every down.

Seau came of age in an era when guys who "got dinged" in the head sucked it up and got back on the field. Only very recently have the leaders of the sport at all levels adopted better concussion protocols. Now, NFL and major college players receive baseline tests before each season. If they suffer head injuries, they must prove their brains have returned to that baseline state before they can return to the field.

Next week, web publication Slate will sponsor a debate between two teams. On one side, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell and author Buzz Bissinger will argue that college football should be banned. FOXSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock and broadcaster -- and former Atlanta Falcon -- Tim Green will argue that college football remains a worthwhile endeavor. One of the main planks of Gladwell's and Bissinger's platform is the link between football and mental illness later in life.

I'm inclined to take the side of Whitlock and Green. Like them, I played football. I could explain what football taught me, but I couldn't explain it better than late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who once told me this: "I learned as much at the line of scrimmage than I ever learned in the stacks of the library." I love the game -- so much that I've made a career out of covering it.

But would I let my son play?

I've thought about this a lot since he was born in 2009. I'm hoping the game is safer by the time he reaches high school. I'm hoping I don't have to tell him he can't play because I fear for his brain when he turns 40. I'm hoping the people in charge have taken drastic steps to ensure the game goes on for generations. But if it remains as dangerous as it is today, I'm installing a basketball hoop.

The sport has faced such a crossroads before. When the "flying wedge" formation was killing players near the turn of the 20th century, U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt shouted down those who would ban the sport, gathered the leaders of the football-playing colleges and forced them to make rules to make the game safer.

If properly motivated, the leaders can change the rules and save the sport. It will require something drastic. Maybe they'll have to outlaw the three-point stance to slow the collisions on the line. Maybe they'll have to outlaw helmets, which tend to make players more fearless than they should be. Yes, the game will change. But remember one thing: In 1906, everyone thought the forward pass would destroy the integrity of the game, too.

Change won't come easy. When then-Rutgers coach Greg Schiano proposed eliminating kickoffs to cut down on catastrophic injuries such as the one that paralyzed Scarlet Knight Eric LeGrand -- whom Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Schiano symbolically signed on Wednesday -- Schiano was laughed at by his peers. Commissioners, coaches, college presidents and high school state associations will have to be equally bold and risk similar ridicule if they want to make meaningful changes.

Because something has to change. Football is too great a sport to continue under this cloud. Every time an ex-player dies too young, football will get blamed. That may not be fair, but it's the truth. Unfortunately, the sport has lost the presumption of innocence.

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