Posted: Monday July 2, 2012 6:50AM ; Updated: Monday July 2, 2012 4:01PM
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Why did Junior Seau kill himself? Exploring athletes and depression

Story Highlights

In past three years, nearly a dozen retired pro athletes have committed suicide

For former stars like Seau, making the transition back to regular life is daunting

Author, a former champion triathlete, has interviewed hundreds about subject

By Scott Tinley, Special to SI.com

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Highly successful athletes like the author (left) and Bill Walton often find it hard to connect to people -- and themselves -- when they retire from sports.
Highly successful athletes like the author (left) and Bill Walton often find it hard to connect to people -- and themselves -- when they retire from sports.
Rich Cruse

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.

 
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