SPORTS SQUIB | Sydney Seau’s Speech Reveals N.F.L.’s Cowardice

By Gus Jarvis | Montrose

Sometimes the National Football League’s pigheadedness can actually do some good despite mostly shortsighted intentions.

Last weekend’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, held in Canton, Ohio, is a perfect case in point. The whole point of the Hall of Fame and its annual induction ceremony is to honor the football heroes of past. And generally just that happens, year after year, without much controversy. Highlight reels, a few speeches and then hand out the golden jackets. It’s a fine afternoon of TV if there’s nothing else to watch.

The 2015 induction ceremony was different, however. It was different because, paradoxically, the Hall of Fame and the N.F.L. were able to not only put the spotlight on the career of one of the game’s greatest linebackers of all time but, despite their intentions, also highlight the game’s negative effects it can have on players.

Concussions. Memory loss. Chronic pain. Depression. Suicide. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Shortened lifespan.

These uncomfortable realities are not what the N.F.L. and the Hall of Fame want an induction ceremony to be filled with, despite the reality that many of football’s heroes of past live with such conditions. Worried that those keywords (and even more like them) could be used, the N.F.L. and its Hall of Fame stuck to some lame rule that prevented Sydney Seau from giving a ceremony speech on behalf of her father and Chargers great Junior Seau, who was inducted, posthumously, into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

If there was ever a football player that deserved to be enshrined in Canton, it is Junior Seau. He embodied the toughness and skill needed to play in the N.F.L. He was a tough and highly mobile linebacker for 20 seasons, mostly with the San Diego Chargers. He was a regular on the field in Honolulu as he made 12 Pro Bowls. He went to two Super Bowls.

As a Broncos fan, I remember Seau as a drive spoiler. I have faint memories of my Broncos starting a drive on the 20-yard-line following a touchback. The Broncos, trying to establish a run game, would hand the ball off on first down. I remember Seau often times greeting the running back, three yards in the backfield. It would be 2nd and 14 and the chance of establishing a drive for the offense was already deflated. And it was deflated by the aggressive and quick play of Seau. It was hard for offenses to do anything positive, run wise, with him on the field.

According to Pro-Football-Reference, there are only 18 linebackers in the N.F.L. to have at least 110 tackles and at least 5.5. sacks in a season. Seau had three seasons with those types of numbers.

And while the guy was as intense as any linebacker could be on the field, off the field he was laid back, kind, joyful and full of laughter. He consistently gave back to his southern California communities. Both on and off the field, Junior Seau embodied everything that a Pro Football Hall of Famer should be. I doubt there would be any coach, player or fan across the country that would argue that.

But the game took its toll on Seau’s health.

At 43, just three years after he retired from the game, Seau was found dead after he shot himself in the chest. With the effects of concussions and brain injuries being studied, Seau’s brain became part of a study at the National Institutes of Health. According to The New York Times, the study concluded Seau had a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). Besides depression, loss of impulse control and anger, the neurodegenerative disease has been found in the brains of many deceased N.F.L. players. And, according to The Times, scientists at Boston University’s CTE Center believe repeated hits to the head can cause C.T.E.

With the N.F.L. settling a lawsuit with players back in April that could help those affected with dementia and other brain issues, and a growing question as to whether players are indeed safe at all in the game of football, this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony was going to be awkward.

I mean, Junior Seau is a man that deserves to be enshrined in Canton but at the same time, you can’t forget what the game did to this man’s health, that ultimately led to his death. But forget is what the N.F.L. and the Hall wanted to do.

Junior Seau told his daughter Sydney back when he was alive that, should he not be able to give a Hall of Fame acceptance speech at the ceremony, he would like her to do it on his behalf.

With his wishes in mind, Sydney, 22, set out to write the Hall of Fame speech her father wished for. The Pro Football Hall of Fame, however, had enacted a rule that doesn’t allow anyone other than the inductee to give a speech during the ceremony, supposedly to cut down on repetitive statements and materials that are often already in the highlight video. So no, Sydney Seau could not speak on her deceased father’s behalf. The N.F.L. and the Hall of Fame say they were following the rule.

I call bullshit. It was Junior Seau’s wish to have his daughter speak on his behalf. If they wanted to honor the man, then they could have broken their own stupid rule and let Sydney speak. Nobody would have argued against it.

The N.F.L., it seems more and more, doesn’t want to acknowledge that players’ brains are being damaged by the game of football. In essence, they were scared as to what young Sydney might say in her speech.

What would she have said, had she been able to give her speech? Thanks to front page coverage in The New York Times’ sports section last Sunday and an online video The Times published of Sydney giving the speech she wrote, we all had the chance to hear the honor Junior Seau deserved – one that the N.F.L. refused to give.

“What keeps coming to mind when I think of him is the fact that he was basically superhuman. On the field he was relentless, hard-hitting, passionate and unstoppable. Off the field he was caring, gentle, hilarious and generous. On top of that he played within the league for 20 years, and that in itself is pretty exceptional.

But I think what we tend to forget about our favorite invincible, unstoppable, indestructible superhumans is the minor detail that they are also human. That is something that we all must endure today without his physical presence. We cannot celebrate his life and achievement without feeling the constant piece that’s missing.”

This is just a small piece of the very eloquent and well-thought-out tribute Sydney had written for her father. It said nothing of brain trauma or C.T.E. She made no judgmental statement against the N.F.L. or the game. She simply honored her father in what he had wished for.

The N.F.L’s refusal to allow Sydney to speak on behalf of No. 55 has proven to many that the league still doesn’t want to at least acknowledge that the game can be detrimental to the health of its players. Now, thanks to Sydney and the League’s silencing of her, many more are looking deeper into the League’s settlement with its players. Read The Times’ Joe Nocera and his op-ed titled, “N.F.L.’s Bogus Settlement for Brain-Damaged Former Players.” Nocera is just one of many who are rethinking how the league views its players, and the game’s detrimental effects upon them.

And while the League needs to acknowledge the game’s effects on its players, us fans should take a moment to do the same. I love football. I’m so excited to be talking about football camps starting and preseason getting under way. And it’s easy to ignore the fact that many of these players that we watch each and every weekend will be permanently damaged by football. The hard thing is to acknowledge it. Believe me, I’m still struggling with it.

For all that she didn’t say in her speech that wasn’t given at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, she certainly had a big effect on a lot of people. She honored a great man – a great man that was severely affected by the game.

She also showed how cowardly the N.F.L. is when it comes to the realities surrounding the game of football. It’s this cowardice the N.F.L. showed last weekend that’s making people look deeper into the game, and everything the N.F.L. stands for.

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About the Author

Gus Jarvis

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Gus Jarvis is a journalist, writer, bloviator at large and co-editor of the San Juan Independent.