Monday, May 07, 2012

Reflecting on the Deaths of Adam Yauch and Junior Seau

When someone dies, people predominantly say--or in the case of the famous, tweet--something nice about him or her.

That's the way it should be, as it's both classless and useless to bloviate about one's flaws and frailties once they are no longer with us.

Even in the case of someone such as Whitney Houston, whose premature passing was prompted by self-destructive weaknesses, I felt the appropriate thing was to extol her talents and express empathy for her afflictions--and sympathy for her family, friends and fans.

Given modern day proclivities, including my own, to emote electronically, I also can't really decry the mass outpouring of condolences on Facebook and Twitter whenever a celebrity dies. Invariably, the story on any online news outlet of a famous person's passing is soon accompanied by another one detailing the social media sympathies offered by other celebrities. While this seems a trifle gauche, I can't deny that I read them. And who knew there were so many Band fans--even just among my Facebook friends--until Levon Helm passed?

But neither do I believe that death wipes clean the truly terrible. While I don't believe in dancing for joy when anyone dies, there are some really bad people--or just those who have done inexcusably bad things--for whom expressing niceties may be unnecessary. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with just saying nothing, particularly when the loss isn't a personal one.

For example, when Joe Paterno died, I didn't feel any compulsion to praise the impressive things he did, for if allegations and insinuations prove true, he at the very least seems to have tacitly approved a coverup of demonic proportions.

I also realize that the public never knows anywhere near everything about anyone famous; heck, much is often kept hidden merely among family and friends.

But what strikes me about the deaths last week of the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch and football superstar Junior Seau--two people I never would have thought of if asked for an unlimited list of celebrities whose deaths would affect me--is not just how at age 47 and 43, respectively, they're my contemporaries and thus prompt  mourning of our collective youth as well as their particular lives.
What makes Yauch's and Seau's premature deaths upsetting in a greater proportion than their impact on me personally--I liked and admired the Beastie Boys, but was never a huge fan; similarly, I enjoyed watching how Seau played the game, but didn't do so all that often--is that both of them seemed to be spoken about throughout their careers with nothing but high praise. And not just for the excellence they exhibited in their respective field of endeavor, but just as much so for being good, giving people.
Yes, in October 2010, with his brilliant career finally concluded, Seau was arrested for a domestic violence incident reported by his girlfriend to police. Without condoning this, the episode was at odds with all other descriptions of his persona (including considerable altruism), he was never charged and following his release he drove his SUV off a cliff. He denied this was a suicide attempt, but there is now speculation not only that perhaps it was, but that it and the domestic dispute were possibly precipitated by brain damage caused by football.

Besides this incident, Seau--a 12-time Pro Bowler who played with a markedly admirable passion--was long known as a local hero in his native San Diego area, where he starred with the Chargers before also playing for the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots.

This remembrance by Ryan Phillips on calls Seau "San Diego's finest citizen" while including some compelling personal evidence of Junior's benevolence. And recollections by New Orleans Saints guard Eric Olsen about Seau second this characterization pretty powerfully.

A friend who has long worked in sports radio confirms that the good guy, straight-shooting image Seau portrayed publicly was also in keeping with how he was known within sports media circles.

And as seemingly but one example of how Seau worked to better his community and the world at large, in 1992 he founded the Junior Seau Foundation, with a mission to "educate and empower young people through the support of child abuse prevention, drug and alcohol awareness, recreational opportunities, anti-juvenile delinquency efforts and complimentary educational programs."

Adding to the sorrow when anyone dies, especially at far too young an age, particularly when (per numerous accounts) they lived a largely exemplary life, is puzzlement over why Junior Seau would choose to take his own life.

Much has been speculated, and will continue to be, about the possible effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which seems to essentially mean brain damage caused by the physical trauma routinely engaged in by linebackers (and other football players).

After former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson committed suicide in February 2011--like Seau via a gunshot to the chest--his brain was donated for CTE research, and lawsuits have arisen by Duerson's family against the NFL.

I in no way doubt that mental troubles prompted by years of smacking his helmeted head into other huge human beings may have been a factor in Seau's suicide, but my thoughts also ran similar to some of the struggles speculated about in this San Diego Union-Tribune article by Kevin Acee:
"Too many men are stumbling unprepared into a scary world when the game stops and real life starts."
 ...wrote Acee, who also featured this quote from former NFL star John Lynch:
"I wouldn’t discount the concussion (aspect). If we did, we’d feel terrible … But – and I don’t say this in a negative conversation – it’s an out for people that are lost and searching. It’s a huge issue. It’s one the league better pay attention to."
I haven't participated in competitive athletics of any note beyond childhood, but as someone who has struggled to find a job, I believe I have some insight about feeling bereft of purpose.

So if your job involves being fervently cheered on by thousands of people and--such as in the case of linebackers and also hockey enforcers, of whom a string of self-perpetuated deaths raised questions last year--necessitates whatever strength, talent, guts, painkillers, etc. required to continuously wreak legalized violence upon others, what are you supposed to do when your job ceases to be viable?

Even--or perhaps especially--if the income of pro athletes allows them to retire without worry about financial survival, is playing online solitaire and watching plenty of SportCenter realistically supposed to provide the same sustenance that the roar of 80,000 fans used to?

Of course--and I can't fairly speculate about any real issues in Junior Seau's life--even if he might otherwise have been contented running his foundation, raising his kids, growing his restaurant, doing some TV work, playing golf, doing a bit of coaching, etc., etc., it's possible to imagine that brain damage restricting some or all of these similar scenarios would have been devastating. Ernest Hemingway killed himself when mental difficulties disallowed him from writing effectively. This is a simplification, of course, but losing your mojo and your purpose can potentially intertwine, quite devastatingly.

So in addition to continuing looking at how to reduce concussions--although the obvious answer would be tantamount to shutting down the league--the NFL should heed calls to increase its efforts to prepare players for life after football.

Photo credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns
Though there's no clean way to transition this back to Adam Yauch, given the above sentiments this sentence in Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot's obituary of him really struck me:
"Along the way, Yauch began to re-evaluate his life and music."
Per Kot, the once a bit wild Beastie Boy turned to Eastern philosophy and spirituality, and with Erin Potts, a social worker from San Francisco, he established the Milarepa Fund, which since 1994 has been putting on concerts and funding projects and organizations designed to aid Tibet in its 60-year struggle to gain independence from China.

Numerous Tibetan Freedom concerts have now been held, featuring a wide range of musical artists and raising millions, which helps to explain why the outpouring over Yauch's succumbing to cancer has been so adoring, not just admiring.

Certainly--and without having been the biggest Beastie Boys fan over the years, I do own several albums, like many of their songs and greatly respect their skill and influence--Yauch's musical contributions were vast and impressive.

But it seems that he himself, quite consciously, became even more so.

Numerous remembrances and reflections about Yauch have expounded upon his life, art and activism far better than I can, and these are just a few that I recommend:

Rolling Stone - Rob Sheffield

Los Angeles Times - Robert Hilburn

The New Yorker - Sasha Frere Jones

Marieke Josephine Hardy

TIME - Touré

As I noted above, there have also been several tributes to Yauch from fellow musicians and even the New York Mets. I found what Chris Martin and Coldplay did at the Hollywood Bowl Thursday night, as shown below, to be pretty touching.

Given how benevolently they seemed to live, it's especially sad that Adam Yauch and Junior Seau are no longer gracing our world. With the caveat that I never personally met either, I feel safe in suggesting that both left the world a better place, and that's about the greatest thing one can accomplish in life.

And in one way or another, both Yauch and Seau made some great hits. So in tribute, here's a highlight reel of Seau's illustrious career that I found on YouTube, followed by a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Beastie Boys songs:

No comments: