Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Mystery Behind NFL Suicides

If you haven't heard, former NFL player Junior Seau was found dead in a possible suicide.  This event has the media up in arms again about the link between concussion, depression and suicide in football players.  I'm sure that its only a matter of time before Congress steps in to voice their opinion*.

While pro athletes live glamorous lives while playing, many retired athletes struggle with depression after falling out of the limelight and other personal struggles (bankruptcy, family issues, not knowing what to do when retiring at age 30, etc), regardless of sport.  I wanted to look at the data for suicide numbers between the NFL (a high contact sport) and other non-contact professional sports, hoping to find a higher rate among NFL players than other athletes.

However, for all of the press that the NFL and suicide are getting right now, I challenge you to find the number of former NFL players who have committed suicide - I can't find it!  Here's what I did find:

  • Cricket is known to have the highest suicide rate in professional sports, with over 150 known cases in the 20th century.  See the link here for a good explanation of possible reasons for this.
  • As of 2005, there have been 76 suicides of former MLB players.
  • All we have for NFL suicide numbers are anecdotal stories, which play towards the heart but not the mind of statisticians.  

I realize that researchers have shown a link between brain injuries sustained playing in the NFL and depression, which has at times has led to suicide.  But without the data, we can't conclude that former NFL players are any more likely to commit suicide than other athletes, such as MLB players or cricketers.  Extra credit to anyone who can help me find this data.

*Showing how effective their MLB steroid hearings were, Rogers Clemens is currently in court for possibly lying about possibly taking steroids and Ryan Braun, who last year failed a drug test and got off on a technicality, is on the field making millions playing in the MLB.