The past year, professional sports have lost a number of players to suicide. The NHL lost Wade Belak and Rick Rypien last summer to suicide. The death of another NHLer, Derek Boogaard, can also be linked to behavior consistent with a person suffering from depression. Yesterday, the NFL lost former player Junior Seau.
I don’t watch football. I will not pretend to even know who Seau was. But his situation is consistent with the situations leading up to the deaths of Belak, Rypien and Boogaard. Multiple hits to the head over their careers (the NHL players all being “enforcers”). This can cause a serious injury to the brain called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Seau was diagnosed with this condition, which is degenerative and causes aggressive behavior and depression, among other symptoms.
One thing I am an adamant advocate for, is the mental health of soldiers returning from war. It is a subject that deserves more attention as so many brave men and women return from war without the tools to help them integrate themselves back into society. Another area of issue is with professional athletes.
Depression is a serious problem, and when the cause of it is a result of the consequences of your occupation, your employer should bear responsibility to ensure your long term health and safety. The NHL and NFL MUST take ownership of this issue with headshots and the long term effects of brain injuries.
The first step in this is to recognize a concussion as a BRAIN INJURY.
Players who have had extended absences from sports due to injury, most especially from concussions and other head injuries, should be evaluated mentally. This is most important when they experience recurring head trauma. Let’s take Chris Pronger for example. His season ended with a extremely severe concussion. His recovery has been slow and arduous. This has been extremely stressful not just for him, but his family as well. What is a person to do when they have an injury that may not only end their career but is affecting their daily lifestyle and comfort?
This is a situation where it is imperative that a player receive proper therapy and evaluation.
The most logical thing to do would be to not only strive to eliminate head shots from sports, but to harshly punish offenders, especially repeat offenders.
In the cases of Belak, Boogaard, and Rypien, these players were known for fighting more than skill. They played the role of the “enforcer,” which unfortunately for them means that they were subjected to low ice time, possible bouncing between the AHL and NHL. Some of the things that these three players had in common were being a healthy scratch, playing an average of only 3-6 minutes per game, and high penalty minutes served.
In the 2008-2009 season, Belak made only 15 NHL appearances. He fought 11 times. Three of those fights were against Derek Boogaard.
Eleven times in just 15 games. That is a lot of shots to the head. Belak suffered from depression and took his own life.
Look at the Penguins enforcer Steve MacIntyre. He played just 12 regular season games for the Pens and spent a majority of the season playing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL. Twice he played less than a minute of the game. He did not engage in any fights in the NHL this season, but he made a complete spectacle in the AHL. (You can read about the incident here and here where Jae and I discuss the pros and cons of the enforcer role.)
If I look at what MacIntyre did in the Springfield game, I’d want him to speak to someone regarding his behavior.
Look at someone like Muhammad Ali. Spent his life being punched in the head and look what happened to his health as a result. His boxing career was likely linked to his developing Parkinson’s Syndrome due to repeated blows to the head over his life.
But mental health care isn’t just about taking care of the guys who took hits to the head. What about how they deal with the stress of the lifestyle that comes with being a professional athlete? The travel, the extended periods of time from home, the strain on their personal relationships, the stress to perform, the pressure to be better, the mental strain of being sent down to the minors. These are all real life stressors that not everyone is able to handle and sometimes it is as simple as having someone to talk to in order to sort out their feelings rather than traveling down a more dangerous path.
Mental health is just as important as your physical health. Depression is serious. Professional sports leagues must move in a new direction because the athletes are suffering. They may be entertainers and athletes to some of us, but to everyone who surrounds them in their personal lives, they are just humans and humans are not immune to depression and are not immune to the perilous effects of head injuries.
We need to start treating these guys (and ladies in their respective sports) as humans. Their lives depend on it.