The NFL, male suicide, and lost opportunities

Author’s note: I wrote this piece against the backdrop of the concussion controversy that engulfed the NFL and has since spread to college and high school racks with lawsuits on how players with brain trauma were dealt with—an obvious men’s issue.

The catalyst for public awareness of the issue was the suicides of some NFL players and, specifically, how the broader narrative tied the suicides to chronic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a brain tissue loss disorder linked to repeated head trauma. However, the link of CTE to suicide is far from conclusive at this point, and there certainly is no causal link. What we do know to be true is the link to suicide and certain other external conditions, regardless of prior head injuries, that these men were also experiencing. In the wake of another recent suicide by a college athlete, Kosta Karageorge of Ohio State, I thought it would be worth sharing here on AVfM as a demonstration that any discussion on men’s health that implicates institutional male marginalization or hypergamy-associated financial woes is often verboten, even in ostensibly “male” endeavors. Sports media, like the culture at large, only addresses these matters through the prism of corporate neglect or malfeasance, which all but guarantees the scourge of male suicide will continue unabated.

Quickly: What did Junior Seau, Andre Waters, Terrell Owens, and Dave Duerson all have in common?

A) Acrimonious family breakups/custody disputes
C) Financial issues

If you chose only “B,” you’d be wrong.

Though the national sports media treated the news with the attention we pay to a TV show’s closing credits, Junior Seau’s brain showed no trauma (author’s update: Seau’s brain later showed evidence of some CTE).

This in no way suggests that football played no part in the deaths or problems of any of these men, nor that we should not continue the heightened vigilance over head trauma. It is merely to suggest that in our endless obsession over the exotic, we miss the mundane.

Eric Adelson’s piece on O.J. Murdock’s death represents the most high-profile departure from the “CTE/concussions = suicide” herd. More journalists should be asking the question, “Is football killing them?” Here is what they might find out.

Men in the US, the UK, and Ireland are four to five times more likely to commit suicide than women. In 2007, 27,000 American men committed suicide compared with 7,000 women. While divorce and unemployment do not change these rates for women, the same factors spike male rates. As father’s advocate Glenn Sacks points out:

Because our society strongly defines manhood as the ability to work and provide for one’s loved ones, unemployed men often see themselves as failures and as burdens to their families.

Think about it. Sacks points to the farmer suicides tripling during the Midwest crisis of the 1980s, as well as the male suicide crest after the Flint, Michigan, auto industry cratered.

The other main risk factor, shared by the men named, is divorce or support/custody issues. When kids are involved, divorced dads are 10 times more likely to end their lives than divorced moms. Simply, women almost always receive custody and thus do not lose their role as mother like men lose their role as father, according to attorney and psychologist Bruce Hillowe. Men often become estranged, their only nexus to their children often in the form of a check—or a jail sentence if they can no longer pay it.

We understand the ferocity with which these men played the game. What we don’t know is the impact on Seau of his divorce and the impending loss of his restaurant. Or that Waters was in a bitter custody dispute over his daughter, whose mom had relocated her to Arizona from Florida. We glossed over Dave Duerson’s bankruptcy and his ex-wife’s filing just three months prior that he was concealing $70,000 in assets. That Owens, though now on the cusp of being back on an NFL roster, was facing occupational irrelevance, looming child-support/mortgage debt, and no income just 10 months ago when he was admitted to an LA hospital.

The question is often asked of these men, as we ask of men whose suffering comes into light only after they act out, “Why did you not ask for help?” Going forward, the answer will be in how we address the disparate manner in which we 1) treat the genders’ health and 2) treat the genders in family disputes. Will we demand that the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), which calls for free wellness checkups for women, do the same for men as it does for women? Is there a “Race for the Cure” for prostate cancer? Will we contemplate presumptive joint custody or giving dads custody more often, lifting their financial support burdens while keeping their emotional connections with their children normalized? We pay lip service of our concern to these men after they’re gone, but will we continue to neglect the simple steps to show we care when they’re here? Will we begin to respect the essential humanity of men beyond their ability to provide and protect?

Or will we continue to dishonor these men of action with just more talk?

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