In the wake of the ongoing concussion study, news that another NFL player committed suicide after his career ended is sad and troubling. Former San Diego Chargers safety Paul Oliver died September 24th of a self inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Marietta, Ga. Oliver shot himself in front of his wife and two young sons. The 29 year old hadn’t played professionally since 2011. He was originally drafted in the fourth-round of the 2007 supplemental draft and had his best year with the Chargers in 2010.
What makes this case even sadder is that this is the second suicide of a former Charger in a year. Junior Seau committed suicide in May 2012.
The suicide rate among former NFL players is nearly six times the national average. To date there are 24 known suicides of former players. Many of these suicides have been a direct result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease typically caused by multiple hits to the head. While it is too early to determine if this is what caused Oliver’s death the fact remains that the rate of suicide in the NFL is alarming.
The question becomes, what is the NFL doing to help former players deal with no longer playing? For many the loss of income, playing, competitive edge, teamwork, etc is overwhelming and deeply depressing. How do you teach these people to cope with the transition from professional athlete to everyday citizen? What obligation does the NFL have to help them?
For current players, what help is there for someone suffering from depression? The sad fact is some of these suicides like OJ Murdock or Javon Belcher could have possibly been prevented had they received help from their teams or from the league. In a culture deeply rooted in manliness though, can a player admit he needs mental help? When players who take too long recovering from an injury are accused of being soft and told to “man up”, how can someone like Oliver or Seau or Kenny McKinnley even reach out and ask for help when they are suffering from mental illness?
We live in a society that still sees mental illness as taboo. A broken leg or a torn ACL we can comprehend but clinical depression or social anxiety disorder we cannot understand. We think it’s all in someone’s head and they need to just “get over it”. It’s not as simple as just “getting over it”, people need help. A therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, etc to talk to and help them deal with their issues. With the lack of financial help former players get, how can any of them hope to afford to get the help many of them may desperately need? How can current players ask for a break to deal with a mental rather than a physical breakdown?
The suicide epidemic in the NFL cannot be ignored. It is something the NFL must deal with. It has an obligation to help those who have sacrificed so much in the name of the sport.