Blaming Football for Suicides a Comforting Falsehood

The Daily Mail characterizing O.J. Murdock in 2012 as “the sixth NFL star to commit suicide in the last two years”--representing “a chilling trend”--expressed the media’s sensationalism on football suicides in just a few words. Not only had there been no alarming “trend” of NFL athletes killing themselves--MLB players had ended their own lives at a higher clip during the previous quarter century without media notice--O.J. Murdock had never even played a down in the NFL, let alone become one of the league’s stars.

Other football players who never competed in the NFL similarly have made media lists of NFL suicide cases. Larry Kelly, labeled in 2012 by one author as among the “dozen acknowledged suicides of relatively well-known National Football League (NFL) players in the last 25 years,” certainly took his own life. And unlike Murdock, he was a “star” player. He won the Heisman Trophy, after all. But Kelly never pursued competing in the NFL. The fact that he killed himself shortly after his eighty-fifth birthday suggests that his successful collegiate career, which had taken place more than six decades earlier, had as much to do with his demise as his nonexistent NFL career.

Kelly, Murdock, and other players tangentially, or not at all, connected to the NFL exemplify the zeal with which journalists link suicide to professional football. The narrative clashes with the facts not just in the rush to label suicide cases that got cut during preseason training camps, played on taxi squads, or never even tried out as NFL “stars.” It crashes against the truth in the attempt to simplistically attribute any player’s suicide to the game he played, as though the part of player lives known by the public is the part of their lives responsible for ending their lives.

Take, for instance, Junior Seau, the sure-fire Hall of Fame linebacker who shot himself in the chest in May 2012. “Did football kill Junior Seau?” ABC News provocatively asked. But an in-depth series in the San Diego Union-Tribune outlined Seau’s behavior leading up to his death, and the credible causes of his fall all had little or nothing to do with the boys’ game that he excelled at as a man. The disappointments--financial, social, legal, marital, professional--that Seau endured weren’t unlike ones that have driven men outside of the National Football League to despair. Writer Jill Lieber Steeg documented “a life marked by depression, drinking, prescription drugs, gambling, financial woes, sexual escapades and strained relationships.”

Since Seau retired from the NFL in 2010, the former Chargers linebacker had passed through a series of young girlfriends, one of which accused him of domestic violence. He had driven his car off a cliff in a failed suicide attempt after this humiliating legal trouble. During the recent recession, he lost an estimated $1 million in a disastrous investment in Ruby Tuesday restaurant franchises, which his son termed his “breaking point,” and witnessed the demise of the steakhouse that bore his name, which went out of business just weeks after his death. Seau abused Ambien, drank excessively five or six nights a week, and forged a strained relationship with his children. 

“The inability to land a high-profile broadcasting job, after hosting a 10-episode television reality series on Versus, left him disconnected from football, detached from the NFL, and on the outside of sports looking in,” writes Jill Lieber Steeg. Her series outlines how the linebacker gambled away millions of dollars in Las Vegas, where, at the Bellagio at least, observers estimated his average bet at $38,800. A week before Seau’s death, the Bellagio called in a $400,000 marker. The money problems in the casino followed upon earlier money problems in divorce proceedings and with a swindler. A financial advisor, who later served time, took Seau and other players for millions. So did Seau’s ex-wife. During the peak of his professional earnings, which came after the fall of his marriage, alimony ate away $87,500 monthly, with child support costing him $40,000 more every month. Junior Seau got paid; more so did the people surrounding him.

On the field, Seau performed under a microscope--actually several dozen of them labeled “CBS.” Fans didn’t see the challenges he faced off the field. They immediately blamed the death of the smiling Samoan on the hits he endured in stadiums rather than the hits he endured back home in San Diego.

The lives of other recent NFL suicide cases similarly reveal off-field problems not unlike those that cause policemen, construction workers, and hairdressers to end their own lives.

• Kenny McKinley recorded zero catches in his one season in the league. He made his mark on special teams, recording three tackles and returning seven kicks and three punts. The Bronco spent the following season on injured reserve after blowing out his knee in training camp. Did those three tackles and ten returns kill Kenny McKinley? Like Junior Seau, the receiver had a gambling problem, owing $40,000 to Las Vegas casinos. Back-up Broncos quarterback Tom Brandstater had lent him $65,000 and counseled him on money management. With one court order for $3,000-a-month in child support, and another paternity suit looming, McKinley’s inability to keep up with the claims on money he didn’t have caught up to him, particularly as knee surgery complicated his NFL future.

• In the seven years leading up to his 2011 suicide, Dave Duerson lost his once-thriving business, his home to foreclosure, and his marriage. Though the Bears defensive back’s family has blamed football for his end, Duerson regarded links between the game and brain damage as exaggerated while a member of the league’s disability board. “The Big Hit has been told to turn in his pads and jockstrap,” Duerson complained on sports radio a few months before his suicide. “I understand they don’t want us using helmets as a weapon but this thing about devastating hits, come on.”

• When former Broncos lineman Mike Current took a shotgun to his own head in an Oregon wildlife preserve two years ago, he faced more than thirty years in prison and three child molestation charges. An associate of Current’s from his Denver days described him to me as a “degenerate” and a “bad guy” even back in the 1970s.

If football caused its players to kill themselves, then one would anticipate that statistics, rather than mere anecdotes, would alarm. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) discovered dramatically reduced rates of suicide for NFL retirees in a study published in 2012. Even if one were to add in the spate of recent NFL suicides not included in that federal study--and even include those erroneously listed as NFL suicide cases such as practice-squad player O. J. Murdock and Heisman Trophy winner Larry Kelly--the NFL suicide rate still would not approach the rate outside of the league.

When those federal researchers looked at nearly 3,500 pension-vested players competing between 1959 and 1988, they expected to find 22 suicides based on prevailing societal rates. Instead, they found nine. It may be comforting to blame a game for a loved one or a teammate’s self-inflicted death. It’s not accurate.

The numbers don’t support the narrative that playing football at an elite level leads to self-inflicted death. More so, the biographies, behavior, and backgrounds of the players who have taken their own lives don’t indicate that football plays any substantial role in such tragic ends.

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports. Read part one of this series here and part two here.


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