News of the suicide of another member of the NFL family brings a sad chain reaction of thoughts: shock, terrible sadness for loved ones, then wondering whether head trauma played a factor.
No one has any answers for why Tennessee Titans wide receiver O.J. Murdock shot himself in the head Monday morning in Tampa, and we may never have answers – just like we may never have answers to why his former teammate at South Carolina, Kenny McKinley, committed suicide in the same manner in 2010. But every time an NFL player, past or present, kills himself, the question arises in our minds if not on our lips: Is football to blame?
There’s another question that also needs to be asked: Is football getting too much of the blame?
The statistics are alarming: Life expectancy for those who played pro football is in the 50s, while the average American male is expected to live into his mid-70s. After the suicide of NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau, surely every football fan wondered whether the game was curtailing not only the quality of life, but life itself.
Something else is just as alarming, at least in the mind of sports neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher. He sees current and former athletes in his University of Michigan clinic on a daily basis, and more often than not, they are worried about becoming “the next Junior Seau.”
“The fear is they’re going down this path,” Kutcher says, “and they are going to commit suicide. You’ve given them a roadmap to the next step.”
Kutcher and others worry that the trend of football players committing suicide will lead to other football players considering the same outcome. This kind of “contagion” is backed up by findings from a 1994 report by the Center for Disease Control: “One risk factor that has emerged from this research is suicide ‘contagion,’ a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide. Evidence suggests that the effect of contagion is not confined to suicides occurring in discrete geographic areas. In particular, nonfictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide has been associated with a statistically significant excess of suicides.”
In other words, mass discussion of suicides can lead to suicidal behavior in others. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be talking about the relationship between football, head trauma and suicide. Obviously, we should. But awareness of the problem actually is posing an unintended obstacle to solving the problem, which is the depression that can lead to suicide.
Consider some recent tweets from NFL tight end Jeremy Shockey:
“The no it all Rog goodell [sic] lied to every player and told us concussions will not effect us in life that a LIE!” Shockey tweeted.
He then tweeted again: “Science tells me I’ll be dead time in 54yrs old!! What would u do?”
You can’t blame Shockey for being worried. You can’t blame him for wanting answers. He deserves them, as do all football players and parents of football players. But the idea that a football player will be dead in 20 years can lead to a hopelessness and fatalism that can facilitate depression. That makes mental illness much harder to prevent and treat.
After all, one of the symptoms of depression is a feeling of doom – that nothing a sufferer does will make things better. So the thought that a player has a history of hard hits to the head and therefore is destined to endure dark days interferes with keeping those dark days at bay. In fact, Kutcher isn’t sure which is the bigger threat: head trauma itself or the fear of the effects of head trauma.
“That’s a question I wrestle with on a daily basis,” he says. “My opinion goes back and forth all the time.
“The first assumption is that contact is causing the effects we see. That has not been proven at all; it’s logical and I think we’ll get there. But if you took 100 people and put them through that exact same life, would 100 end up with that outcome? You can’t just say football causes this.”
One example Kutcher gives is a teenage patient who has a history of mental illness and is considering quitting football because of it. But what if football is something that can actually help alleviate feelings of self-doubt and sadness? If football makes a young person feel better about himself, quitting the sport to prevent later suicide might actually lead to depression – which is a major problem in men ages 18-24.
“Last year he didn’t play because of an injury and it devastated him,” Kutcher says of the teen. “What is the damage being done to kids who didn’t play the sport they love and didn’t get the benefit from it?”
Murdock certainly had some difficulties throughout the course of his football career. He played at two high schools in Tampa, and killed himself in the parking lot of one of them. He was kicked off the team at South Carolina for off-field issues, went to a junior college, then finished his college career at Division II Fort Hays (Kan.) State in 2010. He wasn’t drafted and spent last season on the Titans’ injured reserve list. Team officials became worried this summer when he didn’t report to camp on time.
It’s unfair and inappropriate to speculate what caused his death, but it’s well-known that athletes who suddenly can’t play the game they love – whether because of injury or retirement – are susceptible to depression. Football might have contributed to Murdock’s problems, but the lack of football also might have set him back.
There is no known way to treat head trauma that happened five, 10 or 15 years ago. But there certainly is a way to treat depression. When fans and many of us in the media hear about a football player committing suicide, there is an urgent need to find answers about concussions and head trauma. That’s a good thing. But there is no rush of discussion or reporting on how to treat depression. That’s a problem. And the problem is made worse by the stigma associated with depression. Men don’t like admitting they’re depressed. It’s much easier to admit to battlefield injuries sustained in the course of putting it all on the line for victory.
“Blaming something out of your control is a barrier to treatment,” Kutcher says. “Instead of attacking the illness, you say, ‘I’ve had concussions.’ ”
We don’t know much about the circumstances that led to Murdock’s death. He sent a heartbreaking early-morning text to his former coach at Fort Hays State, Al McCray, which said, “Coach, I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me and my family. It’s greatly appreciated.” Then, at the end of the message, Murdock wrote, “I apologize.”
McCray told The Associated Press he wished Murdock had called instead of texted. Maybe the coach could have given his former player some hope.
That’s Kutcher’s goal as well – giving hope. No matter what the effects of concussions, near-term or long-term, there always is something that can be done to save a football player’s life. There always is something that can be done to treat the most unbearable of symptoms. No matter what the science says, now or later, there always is reason for hope.
We can only hope the next suicidal NFL player realizes that.
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