The Misguided Panic Over Suicide in the NFL

The state of the universe.
May 9 2012 6:13 PM

The Concussion Panic

Why are we so convinced that football head injuries lead to suicide?

(Continued from Page 1)

Or consider the story of the hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard, written up last December in a Pulitzer-nominated series for the New York Times. After years of bare-knuckled brawling on the ice, writes John Branch, Boogaard's hand was a mess: "The fingers were bent and the knuckles were fat and bloody with scar tissue, as if rescued a moment too late from a meat grinder." It was a condition that left him strung out on painkillers, and in and out of drug rehab. He died from an overdose in 2011.

Yet no one seems willing to blame Boogaard's death on his mangled hand. Branch invokes "a brain going bad"—and a postmortem diagnosis of CTE—to explain what happened: Boogaard, he suggests, suffered from numerous concussions that might have made him more prone to dangerous substance abuse. But there's a more parsimonious explanation for the facts: Perhaps it wasn't Boogaard's broken head that led him to addiction, but his fist.

Another example: Former defensive back Andre Waters shot himself in the head in 2006, at 44 years old. He, too, would later be diagnosed with CTE. But once again, there are simpler—and more believable—ways to account for what happened. A reporter who spoke with Waters not long before the suicide reported that "every part of his body hurt, and he knew which collision or injury from his career was at the root of it." He'd been involved in a four-year battle over the custody of his daughter, and like many other retired athletes, he suffered the boredom and regret of a life now spent on the sidelines. "When you're playing football it tastes like honey," he told the reporter, "and it goes down sour like a lemon when you're not."

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Why am I so willing to discount brain trauma as a cause of suicide? Pathologists at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy studied the brains of a dozen former football players who died between February 2008 and June 2010 and found the signs of CTE in every single one. In addition to those 12, 309 other ex-players are known to have died during that interval. According to the BU group, that means CTE affects at least 3.7 percent of the population. (It's basic math: 12 divided by 321 is 0.037.) But this ignores a more disturbing, confusing possibility. What if most of the other 309 dead players had the tell-tale signs of CTE in their brains? In total, the group has found evidence of the disease in more than two-thirds of the ex-athletes they’ve examined. Some people with the condition may never develop any symptoms of cognitive decline, says Brandon Gavett, a neuropsychologist who worked with the team in Boston.

Given that most football players might show these signs of brain damage, even the ones who never dream of suicide, we might do well to withhold our judgment. Yet the moral panic over head trauma rages on. It was announced in publishing circles this week that a pair of investigative reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother Steve Fainaru, recently inked a deal to write a book on "the NFL, brain injuries and the science of brutality." The ex-players who are suing the league have compared their former employer to Big Tobacco and made the scandal sound as dire as the controversy over steroid use in baseball.

The comparison is instructive: It wasn't so long ago that we blamed athletes' unexpected deaths on performance-enhancing drugs, not head trauma. When pro wrestler Chris "the Canadian Crippler" Benoit killed his wife and son and then hanged himself in 2007, authorities blamed the incident on anabolic steroids. In 2005, Congress heard testimony from the parents of young athletes who had committed suicide while experiencing the putative effects of steroid withdrawal, and researchers trotted out anecdotal reports to prove the link.

If Junior Seau had killed himself when George W. Bush was still in office, we'd all be talking about the cream and the clear, not CTE. But you don't hear much talk about steroids and suicide today. Is it passé to observe that around 9 percent of NFL retirees admit to having used steroids during their career? The panic over performance-enhancing drugs feels obsolete, like an anxiety from another time.

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