In American culture, we often like to think of our favorite athletes as superheroes. The spectacular physical feats that professional athletes perform on a regular basis in front of excited crowds in the arena and at home often justify this viewpoint.
However, there are times when we are reminded, often suddenly and unexpectedly, that the superhuman perspective of athletes is really just an illusion — that they are really men and women made out of flesh and bone, like you or me. The suicide of San Diego Chargers’ legend Junior Seau is one of these times.
While star athletes possess incredible size, lightning speed and Herculean strength, the mental makeup of athletes reflects the mental makeup of society. Sure, there are strategic geniuses who seem to think plays ahead of their competition and workhorses with the resolve to overcome any obstacle life puts in their path. But there are also fragile minds. There are some who suffer from bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, impulse control disorders, schizophrenia and sleep disorders. These mental health issues are often rooted in the same things that cause mental disorders in non-athlete populations: individual genetics and the social environment they matured in. However, they are exacerbated by the stress of high expectations and intense scrutiny that top-tier athletes face, as well as the physical strains and tolls on their body.
In the case of Seau, along with seven other members of the 1994 Chargers AFC Championship team who died before age 45, we often only see the end result of the mental issues. Things like excess substance abuse or gambling, extreme violent behavior or self-destructive habits, like self-harming or overeating, are often the only means that athletes use to treat their emotional distress. Even athletes who don’t lose control of their base impulses or seek an external source of comfort like drugs or food often have health issues related to concussions, or life and relationship issues caused by depression.
So what’s a player to do? There’s no easy answer, but I wonder if that is truly the right question. If physical health rather than mental health were an issue for athletes, I’m sure powerful organizations like the NFL would do anything in their power to help ensure that the athletes have long and productive careers. But because the issues are less visible, and often only present themselves externally after their careers are over, that isn’t the case.
The stigma against acknowledging mental health issues is still an issue and the casualties are beginning to pile up. Junior Seau and Dave Duerson (a key starter on the legendary ’85 Bears Super Bowl-winning defense) are just two of the most recent veterans to commit suicide, and the NFL has yet to provide substantial mental health services to veterans and active players. If this trend doesn’t change, not only will we see a continuance of the type of off-the-field issues that traditionally plague sports stars (associations with drugs or trouble with the law), but we’ll continue to see stars take their own lives. As a sports fan who follows athletes throughout their college and professional careers, it will grow harder for me to watch players I saw mature end their lives because of unaddressed mental health issues.
My thoughts and condolences go out to the Seau family and all other people that fight unseen battles. I hope the cavalry is coming soon.
David Washington is a second-year political science major.