A half hour ago I found out that Junior Seau, an All-Pro linebacker who spent most of his career with the San Diego Chargers, died apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In response, an ESPN sports reporter asked that we pause what we're doing and think about Seau and his family.
I have been a Lions supporter since I first remember watching football in 1979. Wanted to attend the University of Michigan largely on the strength of its football team–the academic "leaders and best" stuff came much later. So while I wasn't particularly a fan of Seau (the Chargers played in the AFC, while the Lions play in the NFC) I am a fan of the game.
With this said though, we shouldn't think about Seau and his family first.
The first thing we should do is think about Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard. They were three NHL enforcers (people who made their hockey careers through their fists rather than through their sticks), who committed suicide over the past year. Each of them had a history of concussions. Boogaard made the courageous decision to offer up his brain to science. The results suggest his suicide may have been the result of brain damage.
It is only after thinking about Belak, Rypien, and Boogaard, that we have the medical context to understand Seau. Not so much to understand why he committed suicide–if there were a simple relationship between concussions and suicides the suicide rate of former NFL/NHL players would be far higher than it is. BUT to understand how his suicide may be at least a partial function of his NFL career.
[edited to add]
We now know that Seau not only took his own life, but he did so by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. I mentioned the NHL players above (in part because of this story about Boogaard). But it's important to recall that Dave Duerson, a former safety for the Chicago Bears, also committed suicide via this method. He did so, to allow medical officials full access to his brain after he passed. At this stage, we have a bit more knowledge to suggest that whatever caused his suicide, Seau himself may have believed that his career shaped his final decision. Indeed, one can read this move as a political decision. I'm hoping that when the autopsy becomes available we'll be able to have this conversation, either alongside, or perhaps instead of the conversation that appears to be going on at ESPN and similar sites right now.