Is playing football the new smoking?

May 3, 2012

Junior Seau died Wednesday of what investigators have ruled a suicide. He launched a bullet into his chest at 43. Forty-freaking-three. Another pro football player too damned young to die and, yet, dead nonetheless. Because of what he did and how he died, Seau's death is being woven into what has become an all-consuming debate on brain injuries and whether football is safe enough to play.

This might be right, or he might have killed himself because of lingering relationship issues or financial problems or all of this or none of it. We cannot know, not for sure. So we have conversations about what we think triggered this tragedy.

And, yet, all I thought about Wednesday was Don Draper and his “Why I Am Quitting Tobacco” letter in an episode of "Mad Men."

I am about to compare Seau’s death to a TV show not to trivialize it or because there is anything remotely entertaining about tragic death but perhaps because the only way to understand anything so awful is through one of TV’s most morally complex creations. And what Draper wrote about tobacco is hauntingly relevant now as we talk about football.

“For over 25 years we devoted ourselves to peddling a product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop themselves from buying it. A product that never improves, that causes illness, and makes people unhappy. But there was money in it. A lot of money. In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn’t good for us, but we couldn’t stop.”

I am not so sure football is not the next tobacco. And I very well may be peddling a product that causes illness, makes people unhappy and, in extreme cases, makes people like Junior Seau feel like a bullet to the chest is better than another breath, that life has become so difficult or so sad or so something other than what he imagined and, therefore, better ended than endured.

Why do football players kill themselves? We do not know. We can try to fit it into easy boxes and easy columns to back what we want to say about football. It is the brain injuries. It is the concussions. But much like the uncertainty associated with any suicide, we do not know what was going through the minds of people who took their own lives. Maybe, they were just sad or depressed or unable to cope. Maybe, they were that way because of the pounding their brain took on a football field.

There are causal links, for sure, and the way Seau killed himself certainly suggests a guy who wanted his brain intact and able to be examined because he believed 20 years of football tackles and collisions had screwed it up beyond help. As a result, there will be a lot written about how football needs to be cleaned up, or rogue coaches like Gregg Williams banned. We cheer the suspension of Saints player Jonathan Vilma, as if our feigned outrage will bring Seau back or be any more effective than slapping a Band-Aid on a tumor.

Dirty players do not kill players. Bounties do not kill players. Football kills players. There is no entirely safe way to play the game — not on the level we watch on Sundays — just like there is no safe amount of cigarette smoking.

The warnings are on the packs now. The surgeon general and just about everybody else agrees smoking is the worst thing you can do for your health, aside from maybe football. We watch a show like "Mad Men" where everybody is smoking and wonder what they were thinking.

Is it so wrong to wonder if we will look back 20 years from now and judge this generation? What was everybody thinking by playing and watching something as life-threatening as football?

Both smoking and football are dangerous. Only recently have we come to know just how dangerous the football was.

There is mounting evidence as players retire from the NFL broken in ways nobody could comprehend. Many of them hobbled by the game they played. They are the lucky ones. There are others who cannot remember their children's names, who do not feel like themselves, who feel as if their brain is forever broken. Dave Duerson was one, the former Bears player who shot himself in the chest to save his brain. He wanted it examined for scientific purposes, and probably legal ones, too.

Because Seau also shot himself in the chest, his death will be linked to Duerson’s. This is the stage we are at, guessing and speculating and drawing conclusions that are logical but unproven. As a result, we ask questions that have no concrete answers — like, is a game worth the human cost?

Of course it is, because it is not simply a game. It is big business.

Both Big Tobacco (then) and pro football (now) have a lot of money riding on not looking dangerous. It was the end of the business as Big Tobacco knew it once the causal relationship between cigarettes and cancer was established.

What really did in Big Tobacco was learning how much they knew and how much they withheld because doing so helped their bottom line. The NFL is a billion-dollar industry, and of course, it has a vested interest in downplaying how inherently dangerous its game is. It is inevitable that everything the NFL does going forward is legal and defensible. Whatever the league says, know it is more interested in protecting the brand than in the brains of its players.

There are other parallels between tobacco and football.

Both Big Tobacco and football had rogue doctors, letting guys back onto the field too soon and starring in commercials touting the benefits of smoking. Both are glorified. Cool people used to smoke; now, they play hurt. The toughest guy used to be featured with a cig in Marlboro commercials; now, he is the guy who does not tap out no matter how injured he is.

Big Tobacco was brought down by insiders and, ultimately, public opinion. It is only recently, after public opinion has shifted, that the NFL has started to clean up its game.

Kids will still play football in 20 years, just as people smoke even now when you cannot watch an NHL playoff game without being inundated with commercials detailing just what a hellish nightmare tobacco is to your health.

They will make a choice. They will do so under the influence.

The smokers are addicted to the nicotine; the football players, to the money and fame. And we are addicted to the game, enjoying touchdowns and comebacks and trying to push from our brains days like Wednesday.

Which is how I got to thinking of Draper and his letter, about Seau and culpability.

"And then, when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere, I realized, here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night, because I know what I’m selling doesn’t kill my customers."

What I believe in my heart is Seau wrote his own Don Draper “Why I Am Quitting Tobacco” letter Wednesday.

But he did not have the words. So he used a gun.