Genealogy of a Lie: Tracing the Origins of NFL Suicide Epidemic Myth
Tracing the provenance of the myth that NFL players kill themselves at dramatically elevated rates is a lot like playing the children’s game “operator,” only in reverse.
The pattern generally sees one article attribute the claim that an astronomically high number of NFL players commit suicide to another article, which cites another article, which cites still another article. The end of the chain always references a specific organization, which, when contacted by Breitbart Sports, proved incapable of producing a study to buttress the shocking statistic that NFL retirees kill themselves at six times the national average.
Take, for instance, a producer of NFL awards ceremonies who claimed on a blog on December 5, 2012 that “the suicide rate for men who have played in the NFL is nearly six times the national average,” a post that references New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. In that Times column two days earlier, Bruni, who announced that watching football troubled his “conscience,” referenced a San Diego Union-Tribune series: “The newspaper reported that the suicide rate for men who have played in the N.F.L. is nearly six times the national average.” The San Diego Union-Tribune series, an otherwise outstanding piece of investigative journalism detailing the fall of Junior Seau, dispenses with “nearly” and reports, “The suicide rate for NFL players is six times the national average, according to GamesOver.org, a not-for-profit organization that provides transitional resources to benefit retired professional athletes.” GamesOver.org, a site started by retired player Ken Ruettgers, claims, “The suicide rate for active and retired football players is six times greater than the national average: Depressing isn’t it?”
The statistic or the lack of substantiation?
When National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) scientists looked at 3,439 NFL retirees—pension-vested players who competed between 1959 and 1988—they found 59 percent fewer suicides than found among the comparable surrounding male population. Yet, journalists continue to ignore that comprehensive 2012 study and instead rely on a nonexistent study to convey the idea that the tragic fates of Junior Seau, Jovan Belcher, and Andre Waters remain all-too common among former gridiron stars. NIOSH’s exhaustive research, which the NFL Players Association petitioned the feds to undertake, finds its way into few of the many articles penned on the subject. Instead, journalists in the nation’s leading publications—Time, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe—regurgitate a statistic that NFL retirees kill themselves at six times the national average without citing the study’s name, saying who initially published it, or describing the methodology employed to come to this conclusion.
Elsewhere, the chain between the claim’s originator and its popularizers appear shorter and more direct. In Moving the Chains, a biography of Tom Brady, Charles Pierce contends that “a study revealed...that the suicide rate for active and retired players is six times greater than the national average.” What study? Pierce references a 2004 Houston Chronicle article, which Tony Dungy similarly cites in Quiet Strength to make the same point. But the archived version of the article, at least, doesn’t mention any such suicide statistic (perhaps the print version, or an inset box accompanying the article, did). The archived version does repeatedly mention GamesOver.org, and relies heavily on statistics supplied by that organization. In 2011, the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins similarly informed, “The suicide rate among ex-NFL players is six times the national average, according to GamesOver.org, a Web site dedicated to helping former players adjust to retirement.” Exemplifying the hypnotizing effect of the media meme, former Major League Baseball player Doug Glanville borrowed Jenkins’s precise language the following year when he wrote in Time that “the suicide rate among ex-NFL players is six times the national average, according to GamesOver.org, a Web site dedicated to helping former players adjust to retirement.”
When I reached out on January 3 to Ken Ruettgers, a retired Packers tackle who has successfully transitioned into a career as an academic, activist, and writer, for an explanation of his organization’s claim, he responded two days later by pledging that he’d investigate. “It’s been so long since I last looked at that data,” he explained. “When I return home I will check my files and see if I can find the source.” But more than a week after I first asked, and a decade after journalists began relying on GamesOver.org’s allegation to illustrate the dangers of football, Ruettgers hasn’t produced any source material buttressing GamesOver.org’s much referenced, but unsupported, claim.
When further emails didn’t work in wresting the source from Ruettgers, I tried calling the various Oregon numbers listed for GamesOver.org. But my calls all elicited the same response: “We’re sorry, the number you have reached...” A game of operator fittingly ends with the voice of an actual operator.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.