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Can Playing Football Cause Suicide?

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: When parents send their athletic boys off to participate in one of America's favorite pastimes -- football practice -- the last thing they imagine is that their son's new hobby could contribute to his future suicide. But this week, the New York Times reported that a Penn State lineman who killed himself last April suffered from a trauma-induced brain disease that may have caused him to take his own life.

Owen Thomas
When Penn State's Owen Thomas, a strapping 6'2", 240-pound college football player, hung himself in his off-campus apartment, friends and family were stunned. His parents consented to an autopsy -- which revealed that Thomas had been suffering from a brain disease that evidences itself by uncharacteristic sudden depression and poor impulse control. The same disease has contributed to at least 20 suicides of active and retired NFL players; it's believed that the instigating factor is repeated trauma to the head. 

The appearance of the brain disease -- which is only caused by repeated head trauma -- in someone so young (Thomas was 21) has led researchers to consider the ramifications of tackle football on the developing adolescent brain. Many in the world of football are now questioning the safety and ethics of youth ball. 

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is just one piece of the puzzle as to what may have caused Thomas to kill himself. (Per college-suicide statistics, a host of other factors could also have contributed.) Thomas' parents said their son had never been diagnosed with a concussion or even complained of headaches, though they admitted that he was the type of athlete who "sucked it up" and pushed through pain. 

Thomas' death is making many parents of football players think long and hard about whether or not contact sports are worth the potential price.

Moms, what do you think?


next: My Kid Is the Odd Man Out
13 comments so far | Post a comment now
mitch September 20, 2010, 8:35 AM

I believe that his school was University of Pennsylvania, not Penn State.

April September 21, 2010, 5:29 AM

Yes, he was a PENN player not Penn State. Please correct the article.
As a PSU alum I was quite taken aback just now.

But in response to the article, I believe we as parents need to be more keenly aware of our children’s development as they progress through any sports program to look for any signs of anything out of the ordinary. My son’s high school has mandatory concussion testing done as freshmen that basically takes pictures of the brain and surrounding areas before they even start so should there be an injury down the line they will have a base to compare it to. I think this should be done all over. It would help eliminate some of the questions as to what is normal for that child and what is a new development.

donna September 21, 2010, 7:44 AM

Our N.H. high school has taken a strong approach to concussions. If they even think you took a hit too hard you are asked to sit out for a week or at the very least until any symptoms go away. My question is…where do you draw the line? Have you ever taken a soocer ball to the head? Did you ever watch a baseball player slide directly into the catcher at home plate? These things are what make competitive sports competetive. Parents need to be open with children and be present especially at youth sporting events to keep an eye out for their children.

Casey September 21, 2010, 7:46 AM

This article is BS. I am unsubscribing from these newsletters. One day I’ll get an article about keeping our children active and healthy then I get this article that puts a negative “mental health scare” spin on a truly positive activity for our boys. No activity is to blame for suicide. I believe suicide comes about when someone feels they can no longer contribute to society or help in any way. It is our job as parents to ensure our children know they are needed and are a part of something important. So lets not use scare tactics unnecessarily in random eblasts. Thank you.

Robin September 21, 2010, 9:08 AM

I found this article very interesting for a couple of reasons. One, I have two boys, ages 9 and 7, who are getting more heavily involved in sports (thanks to my jock DH - I was always in music).

Anyway, and two, because I recently watched a program on ESPN about Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It has a disturbingly high incidence among contact sport athletes (namely, football, boxing, and soccer.)

This disease basically disrupts brain function in a way that the person can no longer move or control their body, but they can still think as clearly as ever. And then they die a slow, painful death. Horribly tragic.

So, they were wondering why so many of these athletes were getting this disease. Through autopsies, they recently discovered a toxic protein in the brains and spinal cords of athletes who died from Lou Gehrig’s. This protein is what poisons the nervous sytem and causes the Lou Gehrig’s disease. And the protein is directly produced from concussive activities (getting donked on the head too much.)

So, I’m not really surprised that the same factor causes other brain damage. Our brain controls our feelings, personality, memories, and impulses in the same way it controls the rest of our body. Most of our emotions and personality are in the front part of our brain - so if that’s where many of the concussions are, it shouldn’t be a surprise when that person suffers “unexplained” emotional dysfunction.

Robin D.
Nursing student

Abby September 21, 2010, 10:37 AM

I found this article very interesting and I appreciate you posting it. I also appreciated Robin’s comments.

Pwm September 21, 2010, 11:43 AM

My brother, who is 39 years old and was a recruited football player for a very well known and academically rigorous division one school in the ACC is now showing every sign of having CTE. He went from having a lucrative and successful sales career to having no executive function, dramatic loss of short term memory, and a great deal of pain. It breaks my heart that someone with such promise and presence has been reduced to what he is now. As a mother to a six year old boy, I always wanted football to be part of the equation, until last year when we became familiar with CTE. My son will never ever play helmet football, or hockey, or soccer. That may seem ridiculous to some, but they are not in our shoes, living this nightmare. I won’t expose my son to even the possibility of that fate when it can be prevented. That something we celebrated

Pwm September 21, 2010, 11:50 AM

My brother, who is 39 years old and was a recruited football player for a very well known and academically rigorous division one school in the ACC is now showing every sign of having CTE. He went from having a lucrative and successful sales career to having no executive function, dramatic loss of short term memory, and a great deal of pain, among other symptoms. It breaks my heart that someone with such promise and presence has been reduced to what he is now, and I wonder how many of his teammates are experiencing the same thing. As a mother to a six year old boy, I always wanted football to be part of the equation, until last year when we became familiar with CTE. My son will never ever play helmet football, or hockey, or soccer. That may seem ridiculous to some, but they are not in our shoes, living this nightmare. I won’t expose my son to even the possibility of that fate when it can be prevented.

quesadilla September 21, 2010, 7:24 PM

Some of you have some valid points, but let’s place the blame for a young person’s suicide where it belongs: with his or her mother. Ignoring a child in his formative years (which often falls short of prosecutable neglect), or simply not having her child’s back, are the reasons youth and young adults commit suicide; not head trauma. I have an excellent sense of logic and a great deal of experience in this area. Incompetent mothers abound in the United States, they are pathetic, and when their children commit suicide these women receive overwhelming support and condolences. It would be more appropriate to publicly hang them.

Fashion Design October 12, 2010, 2:55 PM

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Janae May 21, 2011, 4:38 PM

Hey, youÂ’re the goto expert. Tkahns for hanging out here.

Helene May 22, 2011, 1:06 PM

What a joy to find someone else who thniks this way.


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