In news that deeply saddened the football and sports communities last week, linebacker Junior Seau killed himself by gunshot wound to the chest. He was just 43 years-old and had an illustrious 20-season career.
The significance of the decision to shoot himself in the chest is not lost on those privy to a devastating problem across all contact sports: players who in their careers are subject to repeated concussions and head trauma often develop Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”), which results in, among other things, depression, suicidal thoughts, and aggressive outbursts. The Boston University School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CSTE”) is devoted to learning about CTE, which unfortunately can really only be diagnosed posthumously. Because of this, the Center studies the brains of deceased athletes, leading some to refer to it as the NFL Brain Bank. Last year, former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest, leaving behind a note that specifically asked loved ones to donate his brain to CSTE. While Seau did not leave a suicide note, the message he left by preserving his brain seems pretty clear: his depression wasn’t him, it was not in his nature to be suicidal, these impulses were caused quite literally by outside forces and desperately need to be examined.
This goes beyond the NFL, which recently gave CSTE an unrestricted gift of $1 million. Indeed, the Injury Prevention Center at the Center for Disease Control for reports that 47% of high school football players sustain at least one concussion per season, while 35% of those students sustain more than one. The New York Times also ran an expose on the head trauma suffered by hockey players who play the role of “enforcer” after former New York Ranger Derek Boogaard died at age 28. And of course boxers and wrestlers are prone to CTE as well.
I’m writing about this on Bloomer Girls because a common result of this tragic situation is that side effects of CTE come at the expense of players’ wives and children. In one study conducted by the doctors at CSTE, three out of five of the football players they studied suffered from “outbursts of anger or aggression, irritability, and apathy.” And there are other examples of acts of violence committed by athletes who were posthumously diagnosed with CTE. Most notably, professional wrestler Chris Benoit bound and suffocated his wife, strangled his son and then hung himself in 2007. Posthumous tests revealed that he suffered from severe CTE and had damage to all four lobes of his brain and his brain stem. Both Dave Duerson and Junior Seau were involved in incidents of domestic abuse in the years preceding their suicides. More upsetting still is that because CTE is diagnosed posthumously, it’s conceivable that many athletes’ indiscretions can be linked to impulses brought about by head injuries, but we simply do not and may never know.
So when we hear about this issue every several months when an incident occurs, it might be easy to say that, while extraordinarily sad, it’s not a women’s issue or a feminist issue. It’s something neuropathologists will study or something that may affect professional football and its fans. Or when we hear that a football player beat up his girlfriend, it might be easy to say that professional sports breeds hypermasculinity and a sense of entitlement that leads to disrespect of women. But this issue is much, much more complicated than that.
This is something that domestic violence workers, women’s rights advocates and children’s advocates should all care about. These people–as much as team owners, professional players’ associations and professional sports’ commissioners–need to understand the potential root of these violent acts in order to protect players and their families. And we certainly need to understand it so that players are not blamed for actions they cannot control and that are surely more horrific to them than they are to us.