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My Sociological Tribute to Junior Seau

Yesterday we learned that former San Diego Chargers linebacker, Junior Seau, tragically passed away due to an apparent suicide, though the exact circumstances of Seau’s death are still uncertain. Along with his incredible football abilities and accomplishments, however, Seau should be remembered as one of the central Pacific Islander players who excelled in the National Football League (NFL), paving the way for thousands of young Pacific Islander males across North America and the Pacific, who continue dreaming of an elite athletic career. In this post, David Mayeda pays tribute to Seau’s sociological significance in sport.

I will be the first to admit that sport often times causes more harm than good in society. On the other hand, I’m not going to deny the good sport brings. As a young minority male myself (though not Pacific Islander), who turned to athletics throughout high school and university life to build a sense of self-esteem, accomplishment, and as avenue to learn about life, I owe a great deal to my athletic coaches, teammates, competitors, and role models. And this is partly why I am so saddened by Junior Seau’s death.

For those of you who do not know of Junior Seau, he was a Samoan athlete who made a name for himself playing football in the southern California region. He starred there in high school, before playing college ball at the University of Southern California, where he became one of the most feared university linebackers in the nation. At the professional level, Seau played most of his career for the San Diego Chargers, closing out his pro career with stints in Miami and New England. But Seau was no journeyman; throughout his career, he was a fierce playmaker, highly respected as a defensive star who played with infectious enthusiasm, power, and grit. He is unquestionably a future NFL Hall of Famer.

While Seau was not the first Pacific Islander to excel in the NFL, he was probably the first Pacific Islander player to truly stand out. Prior to Seau’s NFL arrival, Pacific Islanders who played in the NFL did so in relative obscurity, hidden in the trenches of the offensive line. Largely because Seau shined so brightly at the linebacker position, breaking up passes, making interceptions, causing fumbles, and halting those seemingly unstoppable running backs, he drew the spotlight throughout the 1990s and up until 2006.

In today’s NFL, it is hardly unusual to see a Pacific Islander playing in virtually any number of NFL positions (though they are still over-represented as linemen), as covered by CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 2010. Even at the amateur levels, dimensions of Pacific Islanders’ cultures have been integrated into pre-game rituals. For instance, at the University of Hawai‘i, the school’s football team has been performing the haka now for a number of years, without problems.

Unfortunately, some concerns with Pacific Islanders’ football prominence exist, including facing racism from mainstream society. Last year in October, Utah police pepper sprayed a small number of Tongan males who were performing a haka after their relatives had participated in a victorious high school football game. National Public Radio has noted that along with an over-representation in football, young Polynesian males are over-represented in forms of delinquency.

And we should return to Seau – an athlete who has been celebrated by fans and athletic peers now for decades. As expressed by long-time friend and teammate, Marcellus Wiley, in this emotional ESPN interview, it appears that Seau may have followed a very common form of harmful masculine behaviour – not wanting to share his personal problems with others (listen in particular beginning at 4:40 of the video; click on link, below):

If in fact suicide is Seau’s determined cause of death, this points to our society’s need to alleviate masculine norms that encourage men to hide their problems, thereby exacerbating already grave mental health concerns. Knowing an individual like Seau, who was seen as so strong, could have possibly taken his own life, our society needs to rethink how masculinity is constructed and the ways men can safely express emotions other than happiness and rage. And of course it warrants asking, was Seau’s possible suicide related to repeated head trauma from repeated football collisions?

These social concerns notwithstanding, Junior Seau was a phenomenal athletic talent and success, and he was pivotal in paving the way for contemporary players, such as Troy Polamalu, who now serve as role models for today’s Pacific Island youth. Let us hope Junior Seau is now in a better place; rest in peace to one of my favourite athletes and role models…

Dig Deeper:

  1. Pacific Islanders are comprised of a diverse range of ethnic groups, including (though not limited to) Samoans, Hawaiians, Tongans, Maori, Marshall Islanders, Tahitians, and Fijians. What do you know about Pacific Islanders, and how have you learned about them?
  2. Read the brief article, “Young Polynesians Make A Life Out Of Football.” Explain why you feel Pacific Islander males’ association with athletic success in football is positive, negative, or a bit of both.
  3. How are sports connected to society’s perception of how men are supposed to behave? What are the sporting values and norms that sometimes encourage destructive behaviours among men in general? How about constructive behaviours?
  4. Emile Durkheim (one of sociology’s founders) argued that males are increasingly likely to commit suicide after they have retired from work because work serves as a primary form of personal identity for men, and once separated from work, men lose the social connections that they define as key in their lives. If Junior Seau did commit suicide, how might his departure from professional football have impacted his sense of self and disconnection from significant persons in his life?