Is There Now a Feeding Frenzy of Concussion-Related Sports Suicides?

by Irvin Muchnick on May 23, 2011

We now know that hockey player Derek Boogaard’s recent mysterious death at 28 was caused by a fatal mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. As soon as Boogaard died, his family donated his brain to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy research group in Boston, led by Dr. Robert Cantu and spearheaded by Harvard alum and retired World Wrestling Entertainment performer Chris Nowinski. The Boogaard tragedy followed close on the heels of the Boston group’s announcement that 50-year-old ex-football star Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February, had CTE.

A cluster of recent sports suicides highlights the American concussion crisis, of course. But it also raises another tough question: After years of being asleep at the switch on the scope and magnitude of industrial brain injuries in our couch-potato entertainment, are the sports establishment and media now contributing to a feeding frenzy that is actually causing additional deaths rather than preventing them?

I have a theory. Viewed in the round, the CTE story is starting to look a little bit like rape – an outrage for which awareness and reporting levels inevitably influence public understanding. The root issue should drive consensus, but the methods are delicate. In raising all this in my own indelicate way, I am not indicting Nowinski, who has done the yeoman’s work of putting the whole subject in play in the first place.

In a Beyond Chron column last September, “Why a 2011 NFL Strike or Lockout Would Be the Best Thing for America,” I predicted that this year would be one of reckoning for concussions. Naturally, a yahoo reader (with a small “y”) immediately wrote to call me “an idiot.” I’m not sure he realized that even as his billet deux rocketed through the ether to me, police in Denver were discovering the suicide of a young Broncos player named Kevin McKinley. Did McKinley have CTE?

In February, while the sports pages were filled with stories about what a great guy Dave Duerson was – even though he was on record in Congressional testimony, and as a member of a player-management National Football League compensation board, as downplaying the connections of retired players’ mental disability claims – a former NFL player named Ricky Bell died, with little attention, in South Carolina at 36. His family refused to comment on how. Did Bell have CTE?

My theory is that CTE news is scaring athletes, as well it should. And that some of them could be getting scared to death. Or at least, with the onset of their own horrible post-multiple-concussion syndrome symptoms, finding themselves wondering if it’s better to end it all than to live an additional 10 or 20 years – with a prospect of winding up homeless and crazy like Mike Webster, or homicidal like Chris Benoit.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the federal government has to get on with the task of cleaning up this mess. Investigating the sharp angles of football helmet hype doesn’t even begin to cut it. There’s a long and sorry history here of research conducted and research subtly censored, and the trail is paved in gold by the $9-billlion-a-year NFL.

Another lesson emerging from the Duerson suicide is that the dog-and-pony show of brain study finding news conferences may have passed its peak of usefulness. At this point, we need appeals for more brains to study a lot less than we need more action.

I’ll give the last word of this round to Michael Benoit, the father of Chris Benoit. Mike and I have had our ups and downs, but I’ve never doubted his integrity.

What are my thoughts?” Benoit told me. “My thoughts are that the CTE doctors and advocates need their behinds kicked. Everyone loves to be in front of the cameras talking about the latest case of CTE, but no one is talking about the people who are currently suffering. The research world is an old boys’ club. How many more brains do we need to prove that concussions can cause CTE?

“Here’s what I say: If you are an athlete in a contact sport, take three to five grams of high-grade Omega 3 oils daily. If you get concussed, it will provide protection for your brain and greatly reduce your recovery time. If you are already showing symptoms of CTE, take five to 10 grams of Omega 3 oils daily. It will help your brain by reducing inflammation, and it is a mood enhancer and may help people who are suicidal.”

Irvin Muchnick, who blogs at, is author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.

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