If you are someone who plays football, or love someone who plays football, this is a story you should hear. This is a story that could save a life.
A couple of weeks ago, Jeffrey Kutcher got a call from a now retired six-year NFL veteran. Kutcher is a neuroscientist who is on the cutting edge of brain research. As director of the Michigan Neurosport Program at the University of Michigan, he works with athletes and former athletes every day. And this call was troubling.
His wife was very upset, the former player explained. He had mood issues. He couldn't concentrate. He had trouble holding a job. He had headaches. Bad headaches.
The player mentioned Junior Seau, who had taken his own life after a career of hard hits. He mentioned Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bear who shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for scientific research. Kutcher says the player has been contacted by a university research hospital about donating his own brain.
He was scared.
Kutcher started asking questions. The player got frustrated and put his wife on the phone. Kutcher asked how her husband was sleeping. Not great, she said. He had put on a lot of weight and he snored constantly. Kutcher strongly encouraged her to take her husband to a sleep specialist.
Earlier this week, Kutcher got a call from the player. He'd seen a doctor, got a mask to help with sleep apnea, and now he feels a lot better. The player had fears of his own doom, and instead he was helped by a simple trip to a doctor. "I shudder to think," Kutcher said Thursday morning, "where that was headed."
Across the country, football players and their loved ones woke up Thursday to frightening, but not surprising news: Junior Seau's brain had abnormalities consistent with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. "Junior Seau Diagnosed With Disease Caused By Hits To Head," read one national headline.
Everyone is concerned about the effects of football on mental health. Everyone. But there are two problems with headlines like this and with the coverage of Seau's tragic end.
One: It's not known to be true that CTE is caused by hits to the head. The evidence is "preliminary," according to Kutcher. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it proven? No.
"The concern about repetitive head injury is still there," says Kutcher, "but the science is still too early." ESPN, which broke the Seau story Thursday along with ABC News, deserves credit in noting that "the study of CTE and football is still in its infancy."
Two: It's not known that CTE causes suicide. Is it possible that Seau killed himself because of neurological trauma sustained during his football career? Yes. Is it proven? No.
The idea that football leads to CTE, which leads to tragedy, is an easy one to believe. But that idea also leads to self-fulfilling prophecies that risk as many or more lives than football does. There are now untold ex-football players around the country reading about Junior Seau and wondering if every symptom is another step on the road to their own destruction. That's completely unhealthy. And it may not even be true.
"This idea of providing simplistic explanations for suicide drives up the suicide rate," Kutcher says. "You're giving people in that category a lack of hope – a reason to not seek treatment but seek a way out."
We do not know for sure that hits to the head lead to suicide. We do know that depression leads to suicide. And we do know that many factors lead to depression. They may include traumatic brain injury (TBI), but also drug use, sudden life changes (like retirement from a sport), physical pain, financial hardship, domestic issues and even genetic factors. In fact, a 2010 study out of the University of Thessaly in Greece suggests a link between genetics and the effects of head injury:
"Accumulating evidence has implicated various genetic elements in the pathophysiology of brain trauma," the study's abstract states. "The extent of brain injury after TBI seems to be modulated to some degree by genetic variants."
Personality factors may also contribute to depression. "Risk-taking behavior is a marker for mental illness," says Kutcher. "That simple concept should give you pause. Risk-takers derive value and self-worth out of living on the edge, whether they ever got hit or not. When they retire, they're going to have some problems. They have a huge problem integrating back into life."
Concussions, once sustained, cannot be undone. But mental illness, whether triggered by any of the above factors (or concussions), can be treated. CTE, even if a player has it, does not place him on a runaway freight train to trouble.
This is certainly not to protect football from blame. The NFL has an enormous responsibility to take action to prevent traumatic brain injury. Even the discussion of adding more playoff games is irresponsible (as it is in college football, despite the hollering from myopic fans and media). The NFL can and should cut two games out of the preseason for the sole reason of keeping players safer.
But the NFL's responsibility to its players and former players goes beyond monitoring and supporting brain research. Mental health resources must be bolstered and developed. Fortunately, the league is not oblivious to this. Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of player engagement, is trying to start relationships with players even before they get to the league, and maintain them into later-life.
"We have to see the athlete sooner," Vincent told Yahoo! Sports in August. "I have to be part of his development and I have to be part of his maturity as he goes through the athletic life cycle. I need to touch him when he's in high school. You don't start with these challenges when you get the NFL."
In fact, the challenges often present themselves in the college years, when young men are highly susceptible to depression (whether athletes or not). College students rarely know where to go for help and support when they're overwhelmed, and the pressures of football only make things tougher.
Tragedy makes headlines. But there are many football players suffering from symptoms right now that they don't fully understand. The easy leap to make is: football, concussions, thoughts of suicide. But these stories don't have to end badly. There are many, like the linebacker who called Kutcher, who can take steps to feel better.
Thursday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar is one of them. The 13-year veteran suffered insomnia, slurred speech and ringing in his head. After 15 treatments at a wellness center in Tampa, Kosar said he's found some relief.
"There are hundreds, if not thousands of guys who are dealing with issues and pain and stuff,” Kosar said during press conference he held at a Cleveland-area hotel. "Literally, I think a lot of them are losing hope. I tried really hard to find it. This [treatment] isn’t something I think a lot of guys know about, whether it's the younger kids playing or the ex-NFL players. I don't think a lot of people know there is hope for them."
2012 was a horrible year for the NFL. Seau killed himself. O.J. Murdock killed himself. And Jovan Belcher killed his daughter's mother and then himself. His final words, according to police reports, were chilling:
"You know that I've been having some major problems at home and with my girlfriend," Belcher told Chiefs GM Scott Pioli. "I need help! I wasn't able to get enough help. I appreciate everything you all have done for me with trying to help … but it wasn't enough. I have hurt my girl already and I can't go back now."
While we wait for science to tell us about any provable causation between football and CTE, there will be a lot of other football players who need help. If you are one of them, or if you are close with one of them, ask for help now. Because honoring Junior Seau's memory can be done both by looking at his sport for answers and by looking outside of it for solutions.
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