Is Head Trauma to Blame for NFL Players' Suicides?

Is Head Trauma to Blame for NFL Players' Suicides?

Junior Seau’s recent death sheds light on a disturbing trend among his colleagues.

Published May 4, 2012

In news that devastated and surprised his family and friends on Wednesday, football great Junior Seau committed suicide, shooting himself in his chest. The suicide shocked his family, who claim that Seau, 43, wasn’t showing any signs of depression.


Seau played in the NFL for a total of 20 years for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots.


As of now, it's unknown as to why Seau took his own life, while some might point to the rough physical nature of football, people close to Seau cannot say for sure. Indeed, both Seau’s ex-wife Gina and former San Diego Chargers safety Miles McPherson are unsure if concussions somehow contributed to his death.


"There is no football player – maybe a punter – that has not had multiple concussions, I would guess," McPherson told the Associated Press.


Research indicates a link between brain injuries and various debilitating neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, writes the Brain Injury Research Institute.


Seau’s family has said they will donate his brain to science so researchers can study it for evidence of damage as the result of concussions, San Diego Chargers chaplain Shawn Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times Thursday evening.

"The family was considering this almost from the beginning, but they didn't want to make any emotional decisions," Mitchell told The Times. "And when they came to a joint decision that absolutely this was the best thing, it was a natural occurrence for the Seau family to go forward."


ESPN reported that despite Seau's close friends stating that he received several concussions over his career, Seau never registered any of them with the NFL.


Suicides due to head trauma are a growing problem among the NFL in the past years. Earlier this year, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson’s family sued the NFL over his 2011 suicide. His family claimed league officials were fully aware of the serious health issues that concussions and brain trauma caused in players, yet purposely kept that information to themselves. ABC News reported that Duerson left a note that asked for his brain to be sent to an "NFL brain bank" for study.


Six other former players who killed themselves are part of that same lawsuit as well.


And just a few weeks ago, former Atlanta Falcons player Ray Easterling, 62, killed himself, too. He was being treated for dementia that was caused from head trauma from his years playing in the league. Easterling was one of more than 1,500 retired players suing the NFL who are suffering from dementia and other health issues.


Health experts believe that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative and progressive disease that comes from too many hits to the head, may to be blame. CTE has been found in the brains of other retired players who have killed themselves, including Duerson. CTE is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and progressive dementia.


While players now are more versed on the consequences of head trauma, the NFL has made some regulation changes in hopes to ensure the safety of their players. ABC News reported:


In 2009, the NFL instituted new rules that require clearance from independent neurologists to allow players who suffered concussions to return to the field. The league also imposed stricter guidelines to reduce the number of helmet-to-helmet hits.


"The focus on sports safety has become much more vigilant about brain injuries and more strict with return-to-play guidelines," said [Dr. John Whyte, director of the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute in Philadelphia]. "But we certainly need more research to confirm whether these athletic-related injuries are leading to suicides."


In the end, the death of Seau is a serious tragedy, but we may never know if head trauma or CTE played a role in it.  



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(Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Written by Kellee Terrell


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