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The football suicides

[ 82 ] May 2, 2012 |

seau

Earlier today Junior Seau became at least the sixth seventh former NFL player to commit suicide since 2005, joining Terry Long, Shane Dronett, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, Kenny McKinley, and Ray Easterling. (A side note: one in every six members of the 1994 San Diego Chargers Super Bowl team has now died — two in car “accidents.” The quotation marks reference the fact that Seau drove off a cliff two years ago in what at the time he denied was a suicide attempt).

In regard to this subject, Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 New Yorker piece on football and brain injuries is essential reading. Duerson suffered so severely from the aftereffects of the concussive shocks to which the game subjected him that he donated his brain to science.

Because Seau was one of the greatest players of his generation his death is likely to throw particularly intense light on the darkest side of America’s favorite sport.

Comments (82)

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  1. arguingwithsignposts says:

    Because Seau was one of the greatest players of his generation his death is likely to throw particularly intense light on the darkest side of America’s favorite sport.

    If there is a use for the word “good” in such a tragedy, this would be it.

    And you might want to put a link to a news source in the post.

  2. Colin Day says:

    RIP, Mr. Seau

  3. mark f says:

    Duerson suffered so severely from the aftereffects of the concussive shocks to which the game subjected him that he donated his brain to science.

    TMZ is reporting that Seau shot himself in the chest, presumably for the same reason.

    It’s gotten to the point where I can’t log into Facebook while a game is on due to all the complaints about roughness penalties turning the NFL into a “bitch game.” The Taylor Branch article got me to give up college football; this might do it for me for the NFL.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      I don’t disagree, but wouldn’t an even better reason not to log onto Facebook while a game is on be because you are watching the game? Now get off my lawn!

  4. david mizner says:

    Speaking of violence and brain injuries, there’ve also been several suicides by boxers over the last few years.

  5. NBarnes says:

    Football is a blood sport, pure and simple. My son is three and, frankly, I will never, ever let him play it. I’ll let him play soccer, I’ll let him play baseball, Goddess help me I’ll even let him pitch (with every pitch he may throw, I’ll see the words ‘labrum surgery’ as if written in fire in the sky), but not football. Not my brilliant wonderful little boy.

    • Bill Murray says:

      soccer is nearly as bad for head injuries

      • rea says:

        Oh, hell, yes–in soccer, you put the ball in the goal with your head.

        • R Johnston says:

          Even worse, you often ram someone else’s head with your head or do something else similar when you both try to head the ball at the same time.

          Headers aren’t great for you, but it’s the missed contested headers that are really dangerous afaik.

          • Paul Campos says:

            Yeah there’s some real bad data on Italian soccer players developing the same ALS-like conditions that are epidemic among former pro football players.

          • LKS says:

            it’s the missed contested headers

            Any serious interest I had in footie evaporated when I was in high school c. 1968 when one of my best friends was carted off the soccer field on a stretcher after a missed header drove much of his nose into his brain. He survived but was never the same after that and had excruciating headaches and trouble seeing. I got to witness the entire awful spectacle.

            I’d be interested in knowing what informed soccer fans think of just outlawing the header entirely. I don’t know enough to have an opinion.

            • GFW says:

              I’m not that informed, but if they outlawed the header, taking away an offensive option, they’d have to do something to compensate, preserving the balance between offense and defense. I’ve considered some options and don’t like any.

              On the plus side, more bicycle kicks!

              • wengler says:

                John Terry got nailed in the head with a boot from a missed bicycle kick.

                Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, but it did knock him out cold.

      • Enzyme says:

        Is it really? It might be – but that seems counterintuitive.

        Had you said rugby, I could believe that. Has there been any research done on suicide rates and concussive injuries among rugby players, I wonder?

    • Furious Jorge says:

      My parents wouldn’t let me play it either, and I just wanted to be a kicker.

      One of their better decisions, I’ve come to understand.

    • mpowell says:

      I think the arm injuries you are likely to sustain throwing a baseball make it difficult to throw a baseball. I don’t think they really have much additional impact. In other words: it isn’t a good reason not to play the sport.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Right. Almost any athletic activity carries some risk of injury, but it’s outweighed by other benefits. Activities that have a good chance of giving you dementia by the time you’re 50, much less so.

      • NBarnes says:

        Yeah, it’s true. I just hate the thought of my son getting Tommy John surgery, ya know? I’ve read too many blog posts about how There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.

        In any case, not even a little bit as much of a fear as my son getting repeated concussions by the time he’s 28.

        • John Protevi says:

          I’m going to do a little googling around on this, but AFAICT, most of the damage is caused by sub-concussion level hits. it’s the cumulative impact of lots and lots and lots of hits that counts. which is why the NFLPA negotiated to lower the amount of contact practices allowed.

        • John Protevi says:

          Here’s something from a Grantland article from Feb 2012:

          A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE.

          • John Protevi says:

            OOPS, sorry, that’s a scenario in which lawsuits would be effective. I’ll keep looking.

          • John Protevi says:

            Brain degeneration from repeated blows to the head has been known in boxers since the 1920s as dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome. “Football is the current poster child for that,” says H. Hunt Batjer, a Northwestern University neurosurgeon who co-chairs the National Football League Head, Neck, and Spine Committee. “What’s come to the fore is the risk of repetitive minor hit injuries.” Recent research indicates that small impacts can cause damage as much as big ones, widening the field of concern to young athletes, hockey players—and soldiers subject to head-rattling blasts.

            http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/02/big-idea/concussions-text

        • mpowell says:

          I could be mistaken, but I think a lot of baseball pitcher surgeries are only necessary to allow a player to continue pitching 90 mph. If you sustain one of those and you are no longer interested in pitching, you don’t need surgery. You can still do the stuff that normal people do and probably even some light throwing.

  6. Jim Lynch says:

    Jeez, what awful news. Not only was Seau one of the genuine greats, he always appeared to be having a blast playing. The poor guy.

  7. Daniel says:

    Of all the things I enjoy doing, nothing fills me with more guilt than watching football.

    • Jim Lynch says:

      Yeah? I know what you mean, but I suppose I’m more cold blooded. I can’t say I’ve ever felt guilty about being a fan, even on this sad day. It might not reflect well on me, but I can’t see that changing, either. What I can see changing, and fundamentally, is the NFL as we have known it. I think profound changes within the game are in the cards, and as a fan that’s more than OK with me.

      Bill Simmons of Grantland (ESPN.com) wrote a column about this very subject not too long ago. His thinking was more in line with yours.

      • mark f says:

        Hard to say; it’s changing, for sure. And the consent on the players’ part to this kind of risk is more informed than it’s ever been. But is that enough? For me and my conscience, it’s a maybe at best.

        It’s worth noting that every single NFL brain that’s been tested has shown the same type of damage pattern that leads to something very akin to early-onset Alzheimer’s. It’s also worth noting there’s new evidence that the damage is irreparable before any symptoms are evident. And, finally, the damage has been present in the brains of high school athletes they’ve been able to study, too.

        I like football. It’s a good game, and I played it myself (inasmuch as I was on a team; I didn’t get on the field much). But this is seriously worrisome stuff.

      • njorl says:

        Something I’d like to see is a reversal of the changes to pass coverage rules. Those changes have made it so the best pass defense is hammering the receiver as the ball arrives. Also, because it is so hard to force a punt, everyone goes for big hits that cause fumbles.

        Let d-backs cover receivers, and there will be less headhunting.

      • Desert Rat says:

        I highly recommend reading Ken Dryden’s articles on Grantland as well. He’s written three great columns on concussions in hockey.

  8. Jay B. says:

    And smoking was once of America’s favorite pastimes.

    I like football, but I’ve been saying for a couple of years that it’s headed for disaster. There is an entire generation of players, high-profile stars who were there during the heyday and everyone remembers, who are dying. Mike Webster’s awful, awful story was the first high-profile (‘though I’m sure there were many others in the shadows) case of this.

    Almost certainly, the liability of the league is immense, like the tobacco industry’s was. They are sitting on findings, and have long treated concussions as jokes. There is probably a long paper trail here, and if not, certainly, anecdotal evidence is everywhere.

    Even if the league sidesteps financial catastrophe, the talent pool will dry up. My boy sure as shit ain’t playing the sport.

    • Joshua says:

      Yea. It’s tough to believe, but the NFL was treating concussions like a non-issue (in that they hired one quack to certify everything was A-OK) as recently as like, 2007.

      If anything, high school and under football is even more careless with head injuries than the NFL, and parents will realize it soon enough.

      • mpowell says:

        There are large regions of the country where they don’t care. I’m not sure the talent pool is going to dry up much.

        • dSmith says:

          If the Pop Warner leagues and the High Schools can’t get insurers to cover them it will die almost overnight.

          • mpowell says:

            This can’t be right. If the medical evidence advances to the point where a HS could be carrying liability, they won’t be able to get insurance. The question is not whether they can get insurance (becuase they’ll never get it), the question is whether they can experience liability. And while schools in CA might start backing off if the medical evidence mounts that playing HS football is bad for your brain, it will take major lawsuits before schools in Texas or the South flinch.

    • Walt says:

      I don’t think that the talent pool drying up will hurt the sport — if the talent goes down on both sides of the ball, the quality of the games won’t go down.

      • Furious Jorge says:

        Really? I don’t know about that at all. Many people who prefer the NFL to NCAA football say it’s because the quality of play is noticeably better. I’ve always preferred college ball, but I have to say that I do see their point.

      • Jay B. says:

        This is why the XFL was so successful.

      • Bill Murray says:

        the quality must go down if the players aren’t as good. The closeness of the game score and hence excitement and outcome would not be much affected

        • LKS says:

          I sort of disagree. Close scores don’t necessarily make for exciting games. Especially when the score is like 6-3.

          Much of the excitement in football comes from the Big Plays, like the receiver beating two defenders in double coverage. That sort of thing takes a highly skilled quarterback and receiver.

          • Bill Murray says:

            I would say highly skilled relative to the skill of the opponents is what is needed. In my podunk area, lots of people love HS sports for the excitement and great plays

  9. Auguste says:

    RIP indeed.

    I concur with Jay B. to an extent. I don’t know if anyone’s done a comparative study with rugby, but it seems from this vantage point like the introduction of helmets was the worst thing to happen to the sport; it just took 60 years (or whatever) for us to realize it. The way football is played is informed by helmets to a large extent, but helmets aren’t keeping up with the way football is played; and I don’t think it’s going to be possible to unwind it, either.

  10. Estragon says:

    Roger Goodell would like to remind you that the appropriate way to commemorate Junior’s life and career is to expand the regular season to 18 games.

  11. KadeKo says:

    Oh lord.

    I literally have been sealed away from all media and am just learning about this here.

    RIP.

  12. Jim says:

    If you expand your sample to 2004, you can almost certainly include Justin Strzelcyk in there as well, another car “accident.”

  13. CBG says:

    Former NFL player Corwin Brown shot himself in an apparent suicide attempt in August 2011.

  14. Linnaeus says:

    Here’s something I’ve thought about more than once: doesn’t spearing seem rampant in football? Maybe I don’t fully understand the rule, or maybe there’s just a lot of room for official interpretation, but I could swear that I see players hit by leading with the helmet constantly. It’s never called as an illegal hit, but I thought that’s what the spearing rule was for, so that head and especially neck injuries would be less likely to happen.

    • Bill Murray says:

      I would say spearing is way down from it used to be. Using the definition of spearing as leading with the crown of the helmet

      • Linnaeus says:

        Ah, that’s probably why I don’t see it called a lot; a lot of hits led with the helmet aren’t clearly done with the crown of the helmet.

  15. firehat says:

    IIRC, the NCAA, or its predecessor, was only formed after Teddy Roosevelt threatened to shut down college football if someone didn’t come up with binding universal rules. That happened after one season in which several players were killed by things like the flying wedge play/formation. So take that historical factoid for whatever it’s worth.

  16. BradP says:

    RIP Junior, was always a player I liked.

    Also, it wasn’t officially a suicide, but one can’t discuss this issue without also mentioning the story of Mike Webster.

  17. Desert Rat says:

    I can foresee a day, probably in my lifetime, where boxing will be banned in many states and countries. Ditto MMA.

    As for football and hockey (which seems to have a lot of problems as well). Let’s just say that if this group of former players’ lawsuits in the NFL succeeds, the bounty suspensions handed down to the Saints’ players today will look like a slap on the wrist compared to disciplinary efforts to prevent head injuries in the future. Raffi Torres just got a 25 game suspension for leaving his feet on a head hit to Martin Hossa of the Black Hawks. How much would he get when sports starts to take head injuries seriously, and begins to lose lawsuits?

    As for what to do about soccer headers, I’ve got no good idea how you avoid them. Use of hands obviously changes the game into something besides soccer, and midair collisions for contested headers are pretty much unavoidable. I could see some sort of helmet becoming de rigeur, however.

    • Bill Murray says:

      those headbands have been around for a while. Shannon MacMillan used to wear one.

      Some more data http://www.forcefieldheadbands.com/soccer.html

      I would guess youth soccer in the US will require something like these in the near future. the alternate would be to ban all intentional ball-contact like using the hands are banned, but that would have to be worldwide to work

      • Desert Rat says:

        Interesting. I wasn’t aware of these, Bill. I wonder how effective they are at preventing such injuries.

        Yeah. It’s hard to see how that works with headers. You can potentially legislate away at least a significant portion of head injuries in football and hockey…it’s hard to imagine what soccer would like like without headers.

        • mpowell says:

          International soccer, sure. But kids don’t like to head the ball anyways. It hurts, regardless of what the coach tries to convince you. I expect some youth soccer leagues will eventually start experimenting with banning contact with the ball above the chest. People might still bang their heads together accidentally, but far less violently or frequently. I don’t even think it would take much away from the game. Corner kicks are lame anyways. Maybe you could shrink the penalty box to compensate.

    • BradP says:

      I can foresee a day, probably in my lifetime, where boxing will be banned in many states and countries. Ditto MMA.

      I can definitely see this. Any competition that is won by physically injuring your opponent seems like fair game.

      However, MMA could really be a conundrum. A majority of top US talent were high level collegiate/olympic competitors in wrestling. Judo is another olympic sport that resides pretty squarely under the MMA banner.

  18. Ben says:

    I just read the part about former players shooting themselves in the chest so that their brains could be preserved for study.

    The generosity and compassion displayed for people with similar pain even as your own becomes unmanageable . . . I don’t think there’s a word to describe that. Probably because it happens so rarely.

    • Desert Rat says:

      If there was a way to like this post, I would. That was my first thought when I read that Seau, like Duerson, shot himself in the chest.

  19. Informant says:

    A side note: one in every six members of the 1994 San Diego Chargers Super Bowl team has now died — two in car “accidents.” The quotation marks reference the fact that Seau drove off a cliff two years ago in what at the time he denied was a suicide attempt

    Sorry, but I still don’t understand the point about “accidents” being in quotes. Seau didn’t kill himself by staging a car accident, so I don’t see how his later suicide calls into doubt whether the other two players’ deaths were accidental. You’d get sanctioned by a court if you tried to claim one individual’s suicide by gun two years after a car accident proved that a different individual’s death in a different car accident was a suicide.

    • mpowell says:

      When the standard is proof beyond reasonable doubt, sure. It certainly changes the likelihood, though.

  20. [...] Campos takes a break from exposing the law-school racket to post on “The Football Suicides,” occasioned by the apparent suicide of Junior Seau, who’d be the seventh ex-NFL player [...]

  21. [...] The football suicides. More players file concussion lawsuits against the NFL. Will the NFL still exist in 20 [...]

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