BOSTON (CBS) – We watch sports because they’re fun. We engage in passionate debate about players and teams and coaches because we get fired up. We listen to sports radio because, with all of the parts of real life that make you sad and miserable, it’s a whole lot easier and more enjoyable to just think about sports.
So when a beloved athlete commits suicide, we feel it. It’s tragic. Though we don’t know the person as well as we know our own family and friends, we do have an idea of that person, and we do feel – to various extents – as though we knew him.
Junior Seau’s sudden death this week was just that: tragic. Unfortunately, though, a human tragedy quickly devolved into a national sports debate. The same way we argue that a player should be taken out of the starting lineup, people were quick to call the radio or jump on Twitter and start yelling about Seau, his mental condition and his personal life.
“Football killed him,” many said, despite not yet seeing or hearing of any evidence to say so.
“He took the coward’s way out,” others crassly claimed.
Look – this is America. Everyone’s entitled to have an opinion. But don’t let this loss of human life become a meaningless sports argument. This isn’t a bad decision by a manager that results in losing a baseball game, it’s not a dropped pass in the end zone and it’s not choking in the fourth quarter. This is a person succumbing to an awful disease.
You’re free to your opinions, but at least remember to have some respect.
And when it comes to such serious matters, if you’re going to have opinions, at least make them educated opinions. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that 1 million people attempt suicide every year. Nearly 37,000 unfortunately succeeded in that endeavor in 2009. All of those individuals had their reasons for taking their lives, and no two were the same. Even a psychologist would be unable to understand the events and thoughts that led to a person’s decision to commit suicide without personally knowing that person’s problems, yet when it’s a public figure, many of us have turned into all-knowing doctors.
Is it safe to gather, based on other players’ histories, that 20 years in the NFL is likely the cause of some form of brain damage? Yes, of course. Read Ted Johnson’s story. Read about former NHL enforcers Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard, both of whom died far too soon, and both of whom had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Look at former NFL player Dave Duerson, who also had CTE and took his life in the same way Seau took his. Look at the 21-year-old Penn football player Owen Thomas, who had CTE and committed suicide. There is, without question, circumstantial evidence that football contributed to the depression that led to Seau’s death.
But while it’s safe to believe that repetitive blows to the head could have contributed to a man’s depression, it doesn’t mean it did. Those 36,909 people who took their lives in 2009 did not all play contact sports. The more than 17 million Americans who suffer from depression all have different origins for their pain, and very few of them played professional football for 20 years.
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It’s easy to point to football as the cause of Seau’s issues, but nothing about the disease of depression is so easy to understand.
“Depression affects eight percent of American adults, and will be the second leading illness throughout the world by 2020,” according to PBS. “Left untreated, depression can lead to serious impairment in one’s ability to function in relationships and at work. It can even lead to suicide, the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S.”
Depression and suicide, football and brain damage – they’re very complicated issues. We can try to understand as best we can, but we may still be centuries away from ever fully knowing how the human brain works and, more importantly, how to fix it. We’re making strides, of course, and the Seau family’s heroic decision to allow medical researchers to study the former football star’s brain is one that will go a long way in teaching us more.
But for now, we know nothing, other than the death of Seau was tragic. For now, we ought to just leave it at that.