Is suicide a problem amongst former NFL players?

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Junior Seau may have attempted suicide once prior to completing it.

While a few tin-foil hat wearing skeptics cast doubt upon the report that former NFL star Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in his prison cell on Wednesday, one can’t deny that there have been more media-reported suicides by former NFL players relative to reported suicides in any other major US sport over the past 7 years. At some point, the League known for strong, silent gladiators needs to ask itself if there is a suicide problem amongst its former players.

Off the top of my head and based on who I saw play, I still remember the shock when I heard that Junior Seau committed suicide as well as when Dave Duerson killed himself. But hearing about Rashaan Salaam’s suicide and now Aaron Hernandez, I am not as surprised and that might not be a good sign if we are becoming numb to a trend.

Despite a previous study indicating that former NFL players who committed suicide between 1979-2013 were not at higher risk compared to the general population, new cases have emerged since then and the study authors concluded that further studies needed to confirm their initial findings. One critique I have of this study is that it did not match the NFL players with men of similar wealth, matching only by race and age. Perhaps comparing NFL players with other major sports athletes or men of similar wealth would be more telling.


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Here are some other former players associated with the NFL/AFL who committed suicide: Jeff Alm, Jovan Belcher, Larry Bethea, Kurt Crain, Mike Current, Shane Dronett, Jim Duncan, Ray Easterling, Benny Friedman, Larry Kelley, Terry Long, Kenny McKinely, John Mohardt, Zippy Morocco, Paul Oliver, Adrian Robinson, Steve Stonebreaker, Jim Tyrer, Andre Waters and Mike Wise.

But the player I immediately thought of after hearing about Hernandez’ death was Lawrence Phillips. Like Hernandez, he was found asphyxiated in his prison cell following a recent verdict. Like Hernandez, he grew up with disruption of his caregivers, ran with a rough crowd and was seemingly battling inner demons.

Those who question how something like this could happen in prison should consider that suicide rates in prisons have been rising sharply since 2013 and a 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails.

Despite the previous study suggesting lower suicide rates amongst former NFL players compared to the general population, the suicide rate is sharply increasing in the general US population and is one of the leading causes of death in young men, reflecting the reality that this is a serious issue no matter how one spins it.

Whether chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) made any of these players at higher risk for suicide or not, we should consider that CTE is associated with depression and the League that encourages hyper-toughness and players to suck-it-up and play through pain is probably not implementing routine screens to monitor players’ mental health. But maybe it should. If we can’t acknowledge physical pain in the NFL, how hard must it be to admit or attend to mental pain?

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