By Steve Keating
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Domestic violence and deflated footballs have hogged the off field headlines in the Super Bowl buildup but concussions were back in the spotlight on Saturday when Junior Seau was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Seau stalked the NFL gridiron for 20 seasons earning 12 Pro Bowl selections and a reputation as a feared and ferocious tackler but on Saturday he entered the Canton, Ohio shrine as a tragic reminder of the price paid for playing a violent sport committing suicide almost three years ago by shooting himself in the chest.
A study of Seau's brain revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a debilitating brain condition caused by decades of cranium rattling battles that can lead to aggression and dementia.
Seau is among a handful of current or former NFL players who committed suicide in recent years.
While their deaths could not be directly tied to the sport, violent or erratic behavior is consistent with symptoms of CTE.
"I would like to say there will never be concussions in the NFL but that's not practical given that it is a collision sport but the NFL has done more than any organization I know to manage the risk," Dr. Matthew Matava, president of the NFL Physicians Society told Reuters. "There has been a cultural shift not only among the players but the coaches and everyone affiliated with the game in terms of what a concussion is.
"We have done a good job of educating players."
While concussions will never be eliminated from the NFL, the league is slowing gaining control of what was once a misunderstood and neglected epidemic that left behind generations of damaged players.
Research linking collisions on the field to the disease has already prompted the NFL to make changes, including banning the most dangerous helmet-to-helmet contact and requiring teams to keep players who have taken hits to the head off the field if they show certain symptoms, including dizziness and memory gaps.
The National Football League said on Thursday the number of reported concussions dropped 25 percent during regular season games in 2014 compared to the previous campaign.
There were 111 concussions reported in 2014, down from the 148 during the 2013 season and down nearly 36 percent from the 173 in 2012, the NFL said during its annual pre-Super Bowl health and safety news conference.
"Players are changing the way they're tackling," said Jeff Miller, the NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy. "They're changing the way they play the game."
"Shoulder to helmet and helmet-to-helmet hits are disappearing from the game."
New rules, new technology, education have helped remove them most dangerous hits from the game but the changes have come too late for generations of former-players, who are part of a groundbreaking lawsuit over concussions suffered on the field.
The proposed settlement that was worth $765 million and under judicial review would ensure payments of up to $5 million to any retired player who develops neurological impairments.
"Certainly there is a lot of work still to be done," said Matava. " But nothing in sport medicine has exploded more in the research front than concussion assessment.
"The NFL has made significant strides with the money they have contributed to grants, upwards of $60 million to study concussions.
"Players do want to keep playing. There is an old saying in the NFL you don't make the club in the tub.
"That's the reality of the business."
(Editing by Simon Evans.)