An autopsy has revealed that NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau did indeed suffer from brain disease as reported by the National Institutes of Health today. This new evidence is very important, but it might be incredibly misleading in the discussion of the reasons and theories why some former elite-level athletes turn to drugs, alcohol, and suicide to cope with their life struggles after competing.
Let me begin by saying that it is very possible that Junior Seau’s suicide was directly caused by brain trauma. It’s also very possible — and in my opinion more likely — that his suicide was caused by fairly predictable life-after-sports struggles that so many athletes experience, including many from non-contact sports. In fact, it’s for that reason that I feel it’s important to expand on this issue at the very same time that a medical report has been released leading millions of people, including leaders in various pro and college sports, to erroneously assume that athlete suicides are largely a result of brain damage. This is especially troubling when these false assumptions come at the expense of completely overlooking psychosocial variables, including the level of athletic identity an athlete possesses, his or her support system upon retirement, and the opportunities presented to the athlete after retiring from sports.
Correlations vs. Cause-Effect
As a research scientist, I caution people from misinterpreting data and falsely attributing cause-effect relationships from correlations. As I have talked about in previous columns, there has been a race by the media to establish head injuries to suicide, when in fact that cause-effect relationship has yet to be born from sound, controlled research. Perhaps it’s a sensational angle to these stories, or maybe it’s what most in the media want to believe, but it’s certainly not the entire story.
In the case of Junior Seau’s suicide, it is certainly possible that brain disease caused him to take his life. It’s also possible that a lot of people would like to establish this connection for a variety of reasons, and that this news today conveniently fits the model they would like to establish. Having said that, I would like for people to remain open-minded and objective to some of the following points:
- Many athletes before Seau have fallen on hard times upon sport retirement, and some have committed suicide. Most of these athletes did not have any brain damage, and many of them come from sports that are not “contact” sports (i.e. soccer, baseball, and basketball are three quick examples).
- One big no-no in research is trying to fit the data to what the researcher wants to find. Again, while it’s possible that brain disease was the cause for Seau’s suicide, it’s also incredibly early to be making such big leaps of faith. This does not at all imply that we minimize the importance of sports safety, but the concern is if we only focus on one factor (brain damage) while closing off thoughts about other reasons, we might actually put ourselves years behind in attempting to make sports a safer endeavor for athletes.
- We must always be wary of correlations when interpreting data. For example, if we were to learn that the guy who committed murder last night was previously an orphan, we must not jump to the conclusion that A) orphans are murderers, B) that orphans are more likely to murder, and C) that being an orphan causes one to murder. In the Seau example, it’s important that we don’t quickly A) assume most athletes will eventually develop brain damage, B) assume brain damage causes suicide, C) assume athletes with brain damage will eventually be suicidal. The point here is to warn against establishing strong predictive confidence while only using select examples to falsely inflate the likelihood of future events from occurring.
What’s Being Ignored
Ironically, we do have compelling sport psychology evidence (and have had for some time) that shows fairly strong correlations with respect to post-sport retirement difficulties negatively related to strength of athletic identity, level of role confusion post sports, lack of future planning, and lack of social support system. For whatever reason, these findings have been largely ignored to date, and it is my suspicion that today’s Seau autopsy will further push people in the direction that athletes who experience brain trauma will be suicidal. Again, this is sad when it comes at the expense of the other variables I mentioned above that really do have strong correlations with sport retirement difficulties and the likelihood for an athlete to consider suicide.
Potential Future Safety Implications
So why does any of this matter? One reason has to do with future funding — for example, if the NFL soon begins to dump millions of more dollars into safer equipment that’s wonderful, but if it comes at the expense of money that could be used toward specialized counseling for players and better transition programs for them to excel in their lives after sports, then we have missed a golden opportunity in better protecting athletes. That, in essence, is my greatest fear, and what’s likely to occur from today’s news.
Learn more about sport retirement and how you can prevent future problems from occurring by checking out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes.