I don’t care for football, although I grew up immersed in the customs of America’s wildly popular sport. My dad, an alumnus of the University of Oklahoma, was a lifelong fan of their powerhouse football team. During the 1960s, he had season tickets to the San Diego Chargers and, as a doctor, tended to a few players. I can’t say I encountered any linebackers at his office, but as a girl I did meet the great sportswriter Jack Murphy, my dad’s close friend.
Most of my family – my brothers, their children, and their children – are as smitten with football as my dad was in his day. Come the start of the season, they’ll be tethered to their TVs or squeezed into the stands, some decked out in navy, gold and powder blue Chargers jerseys.
I get why they’re into it. But while I appreciate the game’s precision, strategy and sleight-of-hand – which reminds me a little of the children’s book series “Where’s Waldo?” – I will never be a fan because of its brutality and violence.
But I am most definitely a fan of Sydney Seau. Seau is the 22-year-old daughter of Junior Seau, the beloved linebacker who spent 11 of his 20 years in the NFL with the Chargers. Three years ago, at age 43, he shot himself in the chest.
After his death, it was found that Seau, like hundreds of other former pro players, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE; his brain was decaying due to repeated blows to the head. Scientists believe that CTE, a degenerative brain condition, causes anger, depression, difficulty making decisions and other behavioral disorders.
This month, Junior Seau received the honor he had dreamed of when he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Before he died, he had asked Sydney to speak for him at the ceremony in Canton, Ohio. Sydney’s family pleaded with the NFL to let her give her speech, but no. She could accept his award, say a few words, but that was it. The pretense was a rule that bars others from delivering a speech for an inductee who is deceased.
My first thought when I heard this was, who concocted such a mean, cynical rule? My second thought was, why couldn’t they make an exception for Sydney? The NFL bends rules all the time, and for reasons far less noble than allowing a young woman to substitute for her late father at an awards event. What would have been the harm?
I’ll tell you what. It would have drawn attention to the ugly truth behind Junior Seau’s demise: the physical, mental and cognitive violence exacted by the sport he loved. And it would have drawn attention to the legal fight being waged by hundreds of former players against the NFL grappling with brain damage, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Last week, 90 of those men appealed the league’s billion-dollar settlement offer because for one, it would have excluded future players battling CTE.
Sydney did not mention her dad’s brain condition, which must have been gut-wrenching for her and her three siblings to watch. Unlike the grown men of the NFL, she handled the situation with grace, dignity and class.
“The reason this honor is so hard to accept is because we had always envisioned him still being here to accept it,” she said of her dad, in the speech she couldn’t give in Canton, which was published in its entirety in The New York Times. A video of Sydney in her hotel room reading her powerful speech was posted online.
“Although he is not the first Polynesian to make it into the Hall, I know he will not be the last,” she said.
Let’s hope he and his daughter are the last the NFL treats so shamefully.
Mona Gable is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and author of “Blood Brother: The Gene That Rocked My Family,” published by Shebooks 2014. Visit her website at mona-gable.com and follow her on Twitter @monalgable.