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Why did Junior Seau kill himself? Exploring athletes and depression

Junior Seau was just the latest. In the past three years, nearly a dozen retired professional athletes have committed suicide. Thousands more are now suing the NFL for doing too little to prevent head injuries, which can lead to emotional trauma and suicidal tendencies. When a former professional athlete takes his own life so young we are conditioned to think that head trauma after years of violent hits is the main culprit. And while the physiology of a damaged brain surely plays a role in many cases, it doesn't tell the whole story. The social and psychological factors in the arc of an athlete's life should not be overlooked. For a person who has been treated as a god-like figure for most of their life, re-entering society without the bright lights is a dark and difficult task.

For sports fans, the question of what to make of the emotional trauma in retired athletes can be a conflicting one. We are torn by how much to care about the men and women who have thrilled and inspired us but have been well-compensated for their efforts. When we see them fail in life after sports we are confused. I first began studying athletes in retirement in 1999 after experiencing depression following a 17-year career in professional sports. Since then, I have had contact with a half dozen retired professional athletes who have either committed suicide or died under strange circumstances. Most of them had become more than study participants. A few were good friends. It's a horrible way to validate your research. And what I found was that retired athlete suicide and emotional trauma extend well beyond a simple physiological explanation.

Emotional trauma in retired athletes stems from a number of social, economic and psychological sources. The many contexts of an athlete's exit from sport affect their decisions, their future and their lives alongside the many they influence. To understand how athletes struggle in life after sports is to look carefully at the power and place of sports in society and the role of the fallen athlete. And for the retired athlete, the most important factor in the quality of their transition into everyday life is the quality of their social support and how those around them influence their return to a new normal.

In extensive interviews with dozens of elite, world class and professional athletes, the type and level of the social support was noted as significant in the quality of their retirement nearly twice as many times as the other key factors such as pre-retirement counseling and financial and physical health. Transitioning athletes need people around them who understand what they're going through. But unless you've been there, how could you really know what to say or how to act? Your relationship with this earthly god, a figure now suffering for reasons that are not plane to see, is based upon their ability to do otherworldly things.

The athlete still has that warrior's heart -- the need to be needed -- but when they can't thrill or entertain us as they once did, there is a period of reframing the relationship. I distinctly remember my wife of several decades, as empathetic a person as you would ever meet, kindly inquiring what I had to be so depressed about as I retired from a successful career as a professional athlete. Nothing really, I said, but the basis of my relationship to family and friends. This was the basis of who I thought I was. Over time, that would change. But not without a lot of effort and a realignment of who and what I was to the world around me. What I missed most about my life in sports was the simple order and the men and women who I shared this with. What a retired athlete will tell you they miss most are the scoreboard and the locker room, those things that signify the structure and the people.

*****

Junior Seau had a lot of friends. He had even more after he died. For months after the 43 year old shot himself in the heart on May 2, many spun stories of Junior being Junior, a gregarious everyman's star hanging right up there to brighten and ultimately ... to confuse. No one saw it coming became the standard response. Not because the signs weren't obvious -- a debatable claim -- but because no one was looking very hard. And to admit that there was no clear and present motive for a man with a big heart to put a hole in it would be to question more than just the pathology of banging heads.

So, in an effort to simplify something very complex, we may have rushed to a physiological explanation for Seau's behavioral choice. It has to be the brain. That's the only explanation. Too many bells rung, too many concussive experiences that contributed to Junior's ultimate choice. It's football, man. People get hurt.

"Suicide is one the most complex human behaviors there is," says Dr. Robert A. Stern, co-director for Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. "It can't just be explained by a specific factor."

What Dr. Stern is saying is that suicide signifies a variety of pathologies. These might range from the social to the economic to the psychological, all of which can somehow be ultimately connected to the athlete's brain and their observable behavior. And if the recent focus on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has only just now catalyzed the science that hopes to one day explain this disease in detail, how can the sports fan hope to understand why their heroes take their own lives? Science can never keep up with popular culture.

Between 2003 and 2011, I interviewed more than 200 retired elite and professional athletes, sports journalists and sports executives. I wanted to take the discussion of emotional trauma in retired athletes from the backroom into the classroom. I wanted to know what the direct and indirect contexts were that affected emotional quality of an athlete's exit from a life in sports. It was a self-healing journey that resulted in a bunch of letters after my name, a new identity, a new job, and a 424 page insomnia-curing door stop of a dissertation. It never seemed like work when I was talking to fellow ex-pros about the things that mattered to us. And the findings were revelatory.

Race and ethnicity had little bearing on the quality of an athlete's exit from sports. Gender did. Money in the bank was a factor: too much or too little were not as good as having a few years to retool your mind, body and spirit. Pre-retirement counseling and health were significant as were the specifics of the sport that you played. Those in individual sports showed less difficulty than those from team sports for a variety of reasons ranging from salary levels to knowing how to do laundry or cooking. The specific reasons for retirement -- something detailed in a number of earlier studies as significant -- appeared less significant.

An athlete's relationships with their team or league and the media and their fans became an entirely new research terrain when looking for the reasons that we so wish Seau might have telegraphed. Tweeting, for example, may have an effect on the retiring athlete because new social media will allow the athlete to control their image. In many ways, the findings suggested that themes of mortality were lurking just below the surface. Not so much about physical death but what the idea of death and dying meant when set up against the youthful vibrancy of elite sport. We are a youth-centric society and few images signify notions of immortality more than the youthful athlete. And even if the elite or professional athlete realizes this, they may not feel it nor speak about their guaranteed exit from sport.

From an early age, an athlete is conditioned to talk with the language of their body. This is what they know; the words we want them to voice. And an act of suicide by a young athlete is more than a single scream in the dark. It is a tragic message sent around the world. You might think you know what it's like to be a sports hero but you don't, it seems to say. And we need to listen better and listen sooner.

As we revere our athlete heroes and negotiate their failures we must confront them individually, not as a misanthropic or idealistic collective. Few of us fully understand the perils of a vaulted existence. Many of the fallen athlete heroes have surrendered wholly to the pursuit of earthly greatness, exposing them to the terrifying process of public ruination when failed investments or morality or the ravages of physical decline come to collect. They struggle in both their young bootstrapped quests to make it to The Show and their ignominious return to regularity. All for the chance to be king. And most say they wouldn't change a thing.

*****

Navigating in the rear view mirror, I now realize that I retired too late, too tired. And while I left professional sports in 1999 at 42 years old with nearly 100 career victories, two World Ironman Championships and enough money to last two years, I still had no idea how hard it would be to become a regular guy. Deciding that pro sports had been a sidebar in my life, I returned to the crossroads of young adulthood and graduate school. It was then that I sought and found like minded retired athletes who would talk to me because, like a veteran posted up at a VFW Hall, I had earned the conversation.

I finally began to realize what the tennis great and philanthropist Andre Agassi meant when he said, "in a way, professional sports can keep people from becoming who they really are." MLB Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken Jr. talked about how he had designed his life after sports 10 years before his last at-bat. The speedskater Eric Heiden shared stories about sitting in little wooden classroom desks as he sought entry to medical school with five Olympic gold medals in his backpack and some 19 year-old kid asking, "Dude, don't I know you?" Former Cy Young Award winner, Rick Sutcliffe told me that he would rather return to coaching young pitchers than travel as "America's Guest." And 1976 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Jerry Sherk told me within the first five minutes of our long relationship that the sooner I realized that the best part of my life was over, the sooner I could move on to a pretty decent second half. Sherk, who had earned a master's degree in counseling psychology, knew the signs and cut mine off at the pass.

"Professional athletes feel like they are a part of a greater entity," says Stern. "There is a sense of self-worth that is developed and supported along the way by being in the limelight of the field." And then where do you go when the stadium lights go down? And who can you speak to about these feelings of despair? For many, asking for help is a sign of weakness and a visit to the therapist a sign that you have failed.

Predictably, we have witnessed rule changes in the NFL over the past several years. And who cares if they are knee-jerk reactions to the shifting distinctions and tastes of a discerning and always hungry fandom and market-savvy NFL? Tens of millions of dollars have reportedly been transferred from the NFL into the NFL Players Association in an effort to ameliorate this growing concern for players. So, let the public discourse spread from tailgates to top-dollar class action suits. This is how we best air the dirty laundry that has already blown off the line.

Over time, as our best years are perhaps tethered to our brightest stars, we struggle to see through our own shortcomings and appreciate the thrills and inspiration that our sport heroes provide. We get caught up in those moments of sporting exaltation and expect them, along with our own youth, to last forever. But when those moments and those athletes fail to go on and on, we are filled with a profound sadness, a feeling that we may not witness this greatness or feel our own connection to immortality ever again.

And in some strange way, we imagine that's what Junior Seau was thinking.

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