The NFL or The Hunger Games? Some Thoughts on the Death of Junior Seau
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
Last weekend I saw The Hunger Games. When I walked into the theater, I could not have told you one thing about the film, and if not for the uber publicity, I likely would have thought it was a show on the Food Network. While there is much to say about the film, I was left thinking about how it merely recycled the common Hollywood Gladiator trope. Mirroring films like The Running Man and The Gladiator, The Hunger Games highlights the ways that elite members of society make sport and find pleasure out of the pain and suffering of others. That is, they find arousal and visceral excitement in watching people battle until death. Within such a narrative trope is always a class (and at times racial) dimension where those with power and wealth (the tenets of civilization?) enjoy the spectacle of those literally and symbolically beneath them fighting until death. The cinematic representation of the panopticon, whether within the past or in futuristic terms, allows for commentary about the lack of civility, morals, and respect for humanity amongst the elite outside of our present reality. As these morality tales take place in the past (and or future), they exists a commentary about our present condition, statements about how far we have evolved and/or the danger of the future.
Yet, what about The Hunger Games in our midst? What about the NFL, a billionaire enterprise that profits off the brutality, physical degradation, and pain of other people? What about a sport that celebrates the spectacle of violence? Unlike The Hunger Games or Gladiator, films that depict a world where people bear witness to death, hungrily waiting the next kill, football and hockey fans sit on the edge of their seat waiting for the knock out hit, the fight, and bone crushing collision. The game doesn’t end with death but death results from the game. Out of sight, out of mind, yet our hunger for games that kill are no different.
Junior Seau committed suicide today; he shot himself in chest. While his death certificate will surely say “self inflicted gun shot wound,” it might as well say death by football. He, like so many former NFL players, have fallen victim to football-induced death. The links between suicides and concussions, between obesity and heart disease, and between drug abuse and post-NFL physical pain, are quite clear. The NFL Games are killing men before our eyes; yes, death is not taking place on-the-field with fans screaming from the rafters or the comfort of their couches, but make no mistake about, death is knocking on every player’s door. “Suicide, drugs, alcohol, obesity—are ailments the National Football League is getting to know all too well,” writes Dave Zirin. To him, Seau is yet another reminder of the brutality of the NFL and the callousness to this epidemic. He continues:
These are issues NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the various team owners are loathe to discuss, but with Seau, they won’t have a choice. In Seau, a larger than life Hall of Fame player, we have someone with friends throughout the ranks of the league and especially in the media. It will be incredibly difficult to keep this under wraps. People will want answers. Over the summer, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson took his own life with a gunshot to the chest so his brain could be studied for the effects of concussive injuries. Junior Seau now joins him, a gunshot to the chest. There is a discussion that the NFL is going to have to have with a team of doctors, players and the public. Right now, this is not a league safe for human involvement. I have no idea how to make it safer. But I do know that the status quo is absolutely unacceptable.
Lester Spence also pushes us to think about suicide as a potential consequence of NFL/NHL careers.
The first thing we should do is think about Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard. They were three NHL enforcers (people who made their hockey careers through their fists rather than through their sticks), who committed suicide over the past year. Each of them had a history of concussions. Boogaard made the courageous decision to offer up his brain to science. The results suggest his suicide may have been the result of brain damage.
It is only after thinking about Belak, Rypien, and Boogaard, that we have the medical context to understand Seau. Not so much to understand why he committed suicide–if there were a simple relationship between concussions and suicides the suicide rate of former NFL/NHL players would be far higher than it is. BUT to understand how his suicide may be at least a partial function of his NFL career.
It is hard not to think about the consequences of sporting violence. It is hard to deny the implications here when NFL players commit suicide at a rate six times the national average; it is hard not to think about a rotten system when 65 percent of NFL players retire with permanent and debilitating injuries. It is hard not to think of the NFL and NHL as a modern-day gladiator ring where our out-of-sight childhood heroes are dying because of the game, because of sport, because we cheered and celebrated brutality and violence. It is hard not to think of the NFL as nothing more than the real-life hunger games, our version of death as sport, when we look at reports following suicide of Dave Duerson: