Over a 20-year career, Seau played for the San Diego Chargers, the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots before retiring after the 2009 season. Two years later, he committed suicide. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that Seau had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Dr. Summer Ott is a concussion specialist with the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. She says erratic behavior and suicidal thoughts can be a result of the disease.
“It’s certainly been a characteristic of CTE and individuals that they’ve studied when they have examined the brains of individuals with CTE, and they have looked at the behavioral characteristics that the family has described in terms of whether or not the athlete or individual did commit suicide may be one of those factors but it’s largely linked to it in many ways, researchers believe.”
Ott says not all athletes who were posthumously diagnosed with CTE had a history of concussions but it’s generally caused by repetitive head trauma.
“You can’t necessarily assume that every athlete who’s played contact sports or maybe even had multiple concussions has CTE, but certainly it poses the question that we need continue to do research on athletes.”
She says her concussion patients generally include high school and amateur athletes who don’t necessarily enjoy the same safety protocols as NFL players do.
Edward hart is the commissioner of the Youth Football Federation in Houston. He says frequent media coverage of head injuries in football does concern some parents.
“However, there are not many actual head injuries that I have been exposed to in our organization or any other youth league. Have we had concussions? Yes, we have had a few, but not nearly at the level as, you know, the major college and professional leagues.”
The impact on the heads of children playing football is not as great as for older athletes, he says, and kids don’t play as many games as professionals.
To avoid head injuries to young players, the Federation encourages coaches to be aware and pay attention to a child’s condition after a big hit. In addition, Hart says, Federation coaches obtain the USA Football certification, which includes teaching the proper way of tackling.
“Some of the old school teaching had coaches teaching kids to put your heads in it, tackle the ball with your head and things of that nature, but that’s a very old way of thinking, of teaching. The proper way of tackling is, of course, see what you hit, keep your head up, so that your head is not going through that constant pounding and traumatic effects that could occur.”
Hart says despite increasing reports about football head injuries in recent years, membership in the Youth Football Federation is actually growing.