The Lucky One

RIP Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr.

Yesterday, after my bi-monthly ritualistic facial shaving and shower ceremony, I strolled downstairs to catch up on the daily news. If this were the 1950's, I'd have started my day with some honey biscuits and the local daily newspaper. This, however, is the 2012th year of our Lord and Savior, Warren G. Harding, so I checked my worldly news via Twitter.

When I opened up my timeline, the phrase "Junior Seau" was appearing way more than it normally did. Usually never a good sign.

One of my favorite philosophers and entertainers, @homework_liker, was retweeting random people on Twitter making what-they-thought-to-be-witty "Junior Seance" puns in the wake of another human being's apparent suicide. (I assume these are the same dullards who fill their timelines with "Sarcastic Wonka" witticisms.) I saw people being angry at ESPN for airing footage of Seau's grieving mother. (Props to the guy willing to hold a camera in front of a crying mother.)

One disconcerting thing about my quarter-life crisis is that I'm getting old enough to remember athletes' entire careers. I was three years old when Junior Seau was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the 1990 draft. I don't remember that, but I remember him being on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids, which may have been the most 1990's publication of all time. EVERYBODY knows Junior Seau. Have you ever heard a negative thing about Junior Seau? Because I never have.

Even in 2010 when he "fell asleep" and drove a car off his cliff after he got charged with assaulting his girlfriend, people just shrugged it off. (Hell, Tiger Woods didn't even make it out of his driveway, he only cheated on his girlfriend, and people gleefully tore him down.) I don't remember people clamoring about "what a fraud" Junior Seau turned out to be.

Junior Seau had made it. He had honed his craft to the point he was being paid millions of dollars to play professionally. He was one of the lucky ones.

Everybody knew Junior Seau, but he will eventually be forgotten. It's not like most of us really knew the man anyway. For example, how many people knew his first name was actually Tiaina? Other than football, what were his passions in life? What were his regrets? His goals? His influences and role-models? His ambitions past the gridiron? Most of all, what could cause a man with apparently so much to be willing to throw his life away at a (statistically) young age (43)? Junior Seau retired in 2010. Two years later, he's gone.

Nobody will probably ask, "Is this the effect of the way society idolizes its sports stars?" Probably because it's not a very fun question to ruminate on.

Junior Seau was one of the lucky ones. He was drafted in 1990, long before the days of the Internet and Twitter.

It's only going to get worse as the poisons of commercialism seep deeper into the roots of American football. College football's tradition and grandeur was sold down the river long, long ago. (Billions of dollars are changing hands for the mere right to broadcast these "amateur competitions".) The money leeches are already attaching themselves to high school athletics too. Compare some of these high school football stadiums to some of the their school buildings and textbooks.

We live in an age where the recruitment of 15, 16, 17, and 18 year olds has been monetized by people with internet connections and access to Twitter. We live in an age where corporations will invite "all-star amateur athletes" to competitions, turn them into walking billboards, and then stage a two and a half hour commercial for their brand. We live in the age where grown men stalk 18, 19, 20, and 21 year olds to see if any of them have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. If they find willing snitches, they will report the wrong-doings to the NCAA pinkertons (but not before they cash in on said wrong-doings first.)

Most perturbingly, we live in an age when universities will pay $350 per band-member ticket to corporate paymasters, but there is no money to pay their student-athletes any sort of wages. Imagine where $350 could go if your grandmother couldn't afford her medication. Instead, it's going to BCS executives to pay for band-members who are performing for free during BCS bowl games. It's despicable in the first place, but doubly so because it's sanctioned by the universities themselves.

Alas, I transgress.

I wouldn't patronize anyone by feigning medical authority (unlike far too many out there in the last 24 hours), but it's hard to imagine 28+ years of playing fast and hard and potentially even playing with concussions not taking its toll. Couple that with the potential for natural post-professional life depression, and it's suddenly less difficult to see how Junior Seau's mind began walking the dark corridors it seemingly ended up in.

I've heard from people, like division three football players, who talk about how they've sustained lifelong injuries from their football careers, but they'd do it again in a heart beat, even if they were only "paid" with a scholarship. For that, I commend them, but it's not like they were ever good enough to have a choice in the matter.

Make no mistake, come this fall, I will be wearing my Ohio State regalia and be cheering wildly as Urban Meyer destroys the Big Ten. I, like all human beings, am a hypocrite. I will continue to watch if for nothing else than my own entertainment.

But, it's hard for me to get over the cognitive dissonance created by my pedantic ruminations on this issue. Junior Seau was one of the lucky ones -- he ended up being compensated fairly for his craft. Yet, I can't help but realize a lot of division one football players are already involved in multi-billion dollar productions. Why is almost everyone making money off these kids' hard work except for the kids themselves?

For every Junior Seau, there are thousands of kids who didn't make it. These kids are literally crippling themselves for our entertainment; we chew them up and spit them out, and we can't find it in ourselves to make sure they're getting compensated fairly? How many of us would work for gift certificates? That's basically what colleges are offering these kids -- a gift certificate (redeemable only at their store). How many of us would work our jobs for free? "For the love of the game"? Not many, and those that would, probably aren't good enough to do so otherwise.

Junior Seau was one of the lucky ones, and yet, we find ourselves mourning what should've been. As one of the most popular and well-liked athletes as we'll probably ever see again in American sports, how does his death not reflect negatively on the American footballing culture and how we raise our athletes? And why don't more people at least acknowledge the need for serious, fundamental reform?

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