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?

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It’s not just us—other countries have had their own panics over athlete suicide. Last November, a journalist and former cricket player named Peter Roebuck leapt to his death from a hotel window. Though there was an obvious, proximate cause for his suicide—he'd just been accused of sexually molesting a young man—it was soon proposed that "he just had a brain snap." Despite a lack of widespread head injuries in cricket (rates of concussion may be half what they are for football), reporters recycled the long-standing yet probably bogus claim that ex-cricketers kill themselves more often than do players of any other sport. If CTE isn't the problem, what's killing all these bowlers and wicket-keepers? David Frith, the author of the definitive book on cricket suicides, offered one theory in the Guardian: "The nature of cricket is such that it tears at the nerves," he said. "There is a compulsive nature to the game and an inherent uncertainty which could damage the soul."

Though reasonable men can differ on whether football damages the soul, it’s clear that it can tear the nerves. Doctors have been aware of brain trauma in athletes (among boxers in particular) for about a century. They used to call it dementia pugilistica and before that by less scientific names: Athletes were punch drunk; they were slap happy; they were paper dolls, or punchie, or goofy, or slug nutty. And we're finding the same condition among NFL retirees today. Former quarterback Jim McMahon says he's lost his memory. Ex-Giant Harry Carson has headaches and blurred vision. These disabilities, almost certainly brought on by repeated head injuries, are exactly the sorts of things that might drive someone to suicide. Getting a diagnosis of dementia seems to produce feelings of depression and hopelessness, and chronic pain is chronic pain—whether it comes from a twisted spine that's held in place with titanium screws or a concussed brain beset with migraines.

The injuries are real, but we've been knocked in the head over and over again with the idea that head trauma causes suicide by a more direct route. It's not that the symptoms of concussion bring people down; it's that the concussion itself does something to our brains—it disables the neural wiring that prevents normal people from killing themselves. What makes an ex-football player shoot himself? Not his swollen joints or his twisted spine. Not his marital problems or his personal bankruptcy. Not the headaches or the memory loss or the years of drug abuse. It's that some fleshy circuit-breaker in his head has been knocked offline—a sprained amygdala, a broken frontal lobe, a locus coeruleus in disrepair.

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Why are we so entranced by these brain-based explanations for suicide, when so many others would do just fine? A collusion of self-interest motivates this belief, and it starts with the players themselves. When former defensive back Dave Duerson killed himself in 2011, there were, as usual, plenty of causes for his misery: Both his parents had died not long before, flubbed business deals had forced him into bankruptcy, and he'd suffered through a divorce amid charges of domestic abuse. But Duerson wanted us to know that his suicide wasn't a sign of weakness, that he hadn't given up in the face of all his woes. Like Seau, he pointed a gun at his chest, so his brain would be preserved for study. He wanted us to know that his brain made him do it.

As fans and onlookers, we also benefit from this just-so story. Instead of confronting the miseries of the retired athlete—the chronic pain, opiate addiction, and unemployment—we siphon off our anxiety over having fueled his rise and fall. We'll make it better by talking about better helmets, new rules for kickoffs, and fancy concussion tests (that may not even work). And we'll forget that brain damage is not a death sentence. Depression can be treated.

Former players kill themselves for the same reason as everyone else—because they're sad and alone and deprived of the psychiatric care that could maybe save their lives. After Andre Waters passed away in 2006, one of his nieces described his mental state for Dave Scheiber of the Tampa Bay Times: "I saw him suffer in silence," she said. "I was right in his midst for three years and every morning he would wake up with this big sigh, it never failed." Waters never sought medication or therapy for his troubles. "He would try to cover it up," she explained, "because he didn't want to bring everyone else down."*

*Correction, May 16, 2012: Originally this article introduced a typo into a quote from the Tampa Bay Times. A niece of Andre Waters said, "... every morning he would wake up with this big sigh," not "with a big sign."