One day before the week 13 games kicked off the NFL was rocked by tragedy.
We often hear of the troubles in the private lives of NFL players, from the large debts owed by the Cowboys Dez Bryant or the video game addiction of the Colts 3rd round pick in 2007 Quinn Pitcock, to the flouting of the law by players such as Ex-Chicago Bear Sam Hurd, Nate Webster formerly of the Bengals, and of course Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick.
On Saturday 1st December, the troubled life of another NFL player was lost. After murdering his girlfriend, Kansas City Chief linebacker Jovan Belcher put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger.
A shocking story in itself but even more unbelievable when you put it together with 3 other suicides committed by NFL or ex-NFL players in 2012 alone.
What could have led a man described by his peers as generous and caring to murder the mother of his 3 month old child before taking his own life?
It is always difficult for pro-sportsmen to adjust to life after a sport has been their entire life for so many years and we see examples of suicide in other sports such as the soccer goalkeeper Robert Enke or the ex-Premiership footballer and manager Gary Speed. But nothing compares to the number of self inflicted deaths that occur within the NFL fraternity.
After the death of former Falcon safety Ray Easterling, a topic that he had raised has been taken much more seriously by the NFL. But has the change happened too late to prevent the awful recent spike in suicides from continuing?
Easterling had filed a lawsuit against the NFL over the handling of concussion related injuries a year before he took his own life. This lawsuit was filed following the death of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson who, unlike Jovan Belcher, had shot himself in the chest and not the head, allowing research to be conducted on his brain. Junior Seau, the San Diego Chargers legend would also choose to take his life in this manner.
The results of the research would show that cognitive and behavioural problems were likely in later life if multiple concussions were sustained, a condition named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The research conducted at Boston University found evidence of CTE in 12 out of 13 professional football players’ brains that were received.
NFL teams must now employ sideline doctors to check players following a possible concussion, and if such an injury has been sustained that player will not be allowed to return to the field until they have completed a cognitive test and reached a baseline level determined by a pre-season test. Michael Vick may remain on the bench due to political reasons amongst the Philadelphia Eagles but the official line is that he has not recovered from a concussion sustained against the Cowboys back in week 10.
The NFL will continue to find ways to make the game safer as the number of 300lb players increases from the 3 there were in 1980 and the 352 currently plying their trade in the league. Kickoffs have recently advanced to the 35 yard line to reduce the number of kick returns for example. It is another reason why the suspensions resulting from the bounty-gate scandal were so severe. A signal from the NFL that this game can ruin the lives of so many and player safety must come first.
However, Chiefs chairman Clark Hunter has said that Belcher “had not had a long concussion history” despite his years as a successful college player at Maine as well as an All American wrestling champ.
Perhaps the life of a professional sportsman is just even more stressful than the life you lead; reading this article at the office desk of your average 9-5 wondering what you should get your wife and kids for Christmas…