This was supposed to be a column about the NFL's punishment of New Orleans Saints' coaches and players for their role in running a bounty program in which players were paid to level injurious hits on opponents. Specifically, I was going to applaud NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for taking an unprecedented stand against what would be considered criminal assault off the football field. And I was going to chastise current and former players who excuse such behavior as "part of the game."
Then I got an email from a college friend who played football at my alma mater, the University of Southern California, telling me that his former teammate and our friend, Junior Seau, was dead from an apparent gunshot wound. The police suspect suicide.
Is this part of the game too?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I knew Seau from our days at USC when I worked as a student intern in the football office. I hadn't talked to him in years, but we share many friends and memories from what most of us consider to be some of the best years of our lives. And those friends and memories are flooding back and flying through cyberspace as we reminisce and grieve and wonder.
It's hard not to jump to conclusions about what happened. Seau was perhaps one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game. He hit hard for a long time -- 20 years to be precise. In a game as physically grueling as football, that's hard to fathom.
People commit suicide for all kinds of reasons. But when it happens to a football player in his early 40s there is simply no way to avoid asking the question, "Was this the result of brain trauma from so many violent collisions?"
A story that ran on Jan. 7, 2012 in the Boston Globe, cites research done by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy that underscores the dangers of playing contact sports:
The BU Center has now analyzed the brains of more than 75 deceased athletes. It has found CTE, originally diagnosed in 1928 in "punch drunk'' boxers, in more than 50 of them, including at least 14 of 15 NFL players, and four of six professional hockey players. Evidence of early CTE has now been found in former high school and college football players who died when they were 17, 18 and 21.
Those are scary and sobering statistics.
It's obviously too soon to know if Seau will be added to their ranks, though the fact that he shot himself in the chest, as Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears star, did last year to preserve his brain for study, is suggestive. At some level, it does not even matter. He died too young, no matter what the cause.
But at another level it matters a lot. Because as the Saints bounty scandal demonstrated, there are still players (and coaches and team officials) out there who don't get it. Who are unable or unwilling to grasp the difference between a clean hit and a cheap shot. Who think this is all just a game.