[This blog post was originally written on August 9, 2015] Something needs to be said about yesterday’s NFL Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. There was one very important person missing: Former All-Everything Linebacker Junior Seau. He is missing because he took his own life in 2012, between the time he retired after 20 NFL seasons, and the date of his induction into the Hall of Fame. He took his life by pointing a gun at his heart and putting a bullet through it, allegedly so as to not do damage to his brain, and to leave it to be studied by doctors to assess the impact of repeated concussions from playing the sport.
Seau was one of several to take their own lives in this way, presumably to prove to the NFL and others that they needed to study Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE, chronic brain damage that is said to make people feel crazy, like they’ve lost their minds, and also known for leading to severe depression), and because he could no longer live with the symptoms of the disease. Seau did not leave a note, but the year before Seau’s suicide, Dave Duerson committed suicide in the same fashion and did leave a note requesting that his brain be studied for CTE. To date, 18 players have been diagnosed with CTE, and 8 more are suspected to have had it. Currently, 32 living former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE or ALS, presumed to have come from repeated concussions. These are names you know, including Brett Farve, Tony Dorsett, and Jim McMahon.
As you know, this space is not one for advocacy of one side or another on an issue, but rather to advocate for the discussions we should be having about difficult issues. Neither side can stick their heads in the sand on such an important issue, but on this one, both sides did. Players, ceding for the moment to the macho, jock stereotype, were not the most likely to step forward and admit a medical weakness from playing the game. And the NFL owners likely looked at this as a risk of potential liability, so they went into denial mode until these suicides began, almost as a trend.
Eventually, the players filed a lawsuit, and there was a 2013 settlement, though it is still in conflict, with players opting out. What’s wrong with this picture? Isn’t this how our society works? One side or both on an issue put their heads into the sand, refusing to acknowledge a problem, forcing the hand of the other to file a lawsuit in order to get the other side’s attention, and after each side has spent unheard of amounts of money fighting in our adversarial system, only then do they begin to have discussions.
What would happen if at the beginning of the problem, the very genesis of it, they brought in a mediator to serve as a neutral party and help them exchange information, discuss options, and look toward solutions and resolutions? As a mediator, I can say that there is a huge difference in the options available to us early on in a dispute, as opposed to later, after litigation and discovery have entrenched everyone. In the early stages, we talk about collaborating on a resolution, in the late stages, we talk about accepting a monetary settlement, often from an insurance policy that covers the defendant.
Until insurance companies, corporations, and individuals begin to decide to talk it over in the early stages of a conflict, we are going to keep going down this same path. And what should be glorious celebrations of sport and victory will continue to be marred by death, sadness, and whispers of what would have been, and how it could have been different.