A lot is going through my head right now in the wake of Junior Seau’s suicide. If you’re a fan of sports, I’m sure a lot is going through yours as well. If not, then it should be. This should be giving everyone from the front offices to the bleachers pause and cause for concern, particularly in the NFL where the suicide rate among former players is nearly six times(!) the national average.
The links between concussions, CTE/TBI, depression, and suicide are far from “inconclusive” and it’s not tasteless nor is it irresponsible to bring it up. The only uncertainty is the vague metaphysical notion of universal uncertainty; the kind that people apply when they want to dismiss an argument because they’d prefer not hear it or don’t have the emotional or intellectual maturity to participate in the discussion. There’s no avoiding it: Seau killed himself, but before he did it, concussions killed Seau.
My first thought was for my fight coming up on the 12th, and it made me realize that it’s probably a good thing that this will be a one-time thing.
Then my thoughts turned to MMA. There are already studies and tests being conducted on former fighters to examine the long-term effects of the sport. As I’ve said before, I think with time we’ll find MMA to have a unique advantage over the NFL and boxing in terms of damage from concussions. What is known is that the greatest damage comes from repeated concussions and especially those that occur within a short period of time. With stoppages and the manner in which MMA bouts are structured, the danger might be decreased. There’s no “standing 8 count” to let a fighter recover from a minor concussion so he can accumulate more damage. There’s no “tough it up and get back in the game” after a player gets knocked silly and rests for a quarter. However, concussions do happen to fighters in the sport, in some cases with alarming frequency.
When this issue came up four years ago in the wake of the Benoit murder-suicide and other deaths involving former wrestlers, I swore off professional wrestling. My interest tapered for a few months until I just couldn’t justify supporting it anymore. I’d occasionally flirt with it and kept tabs through Dave Meltzer and Bryan Alvarez, but never got in bed with it. That changed a few months ago. I started talking with my older brother, who still regularly watched the product, and found it a way for us to connect. He sort of dragged me back into pro wrestling like an old junkie friend shooting up in front of me until I relapsed.
I don’t want to wax poetic about it too much since I’ll stray into a territory where the line between earnest feelings and facetiousness becomes blurred (as it did in that last paragraph). The long and the short of it is that this is a real issue in all contact sports – MMA included – that can no longer be ignored. It’s a discussion we can’t avoid having, and we shouldn’t angrily spit at those who bring it up like I’ve seen so many do in the wake of Seau’s death. There is and will continue to be a moral compromise we make in our participation and support of the MMA, the NFL, boxing, and any sport where repeated concussions are a risk. I can’t see how you can be a fan of the sports and the athletes that participate in them and not grapple with it on some level.
Some have gone so far as to say they can’t watch anymore, but I know that for me personally, familial and other ties along with my fondness for the sports themselves are going to make that impossible. So if you’re looking for me for suggestions, I’m all out of them. The best and only advice I can give you is to just think about it, talk about it, and allow others to keep talking. There isn’t a fix that will erase these problems, but a sustained public dialogue will at least bring about some change which, considering the stakes, is nothing to dismiss out of hand.
Some other thoughts…
What I think is illustrative about the negative reaction when one brings up the issue of concussions in MMA is that it reveals the fault lines between the fans, promoters, doctors, and fighters. Fans don’t care how the sausage is made, they just want the sausage. Many didn’t care that PRIDE was engulfed with a yakuza scandal, they just wanted to see PRIDE. The initial reaction many fans first had about the drug usage crisis in MMA was less about health & safety and more about, ‘whatever it takes for fighters to fight, let them do it.’ That perception has changed somewhat but is still prevalent.
I now know that I have to go. I have known it for a while now. But I have yet to walk away. For me, the hardest portion is living apart–destroying something that binds me to friends and family. With people whom I would not pass another words, I can debate the greatest running back of all time. It’s like losing a language.
I’m not here to dictate other people’s morality. I’m certainly not here to call for banning of the risky activities of consenting adults. And my moral calculus is my own. Surely it is a man’s right to endanger his body, and just as it is my right to decline to watch. The actions of everyone in between are not my consideration.
Suicide, it seems, has become an occupational hazard for football players, the tab at least some gridiron stars pay once the NFL paychecks and perks that come with being a professional athlete stop coming. Former Chicago Bear and Giant Dave Duerson suffered from terrible depression before he shot himself in the chest last year. Duerson must have suspected a link between concussions and depression, because he asked his family to donate his brain to Boston University researchers. Ex-Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling, who had developed symptoms of dementia — another symptom of traumatic brain injuries — shot himself last month. Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles safety, shot himself in the head in 2006; a University of Pittsburgh researcher who examined what was left determined that the 46-year-old had the brain of an 85-year-old.
“Another NFL great lost, and for what?” says former Jets quarterback Ray Lucas, now an SNY broadcaster and PAST peer counselor. “Maybe someone will start paying attention. I’m going to work with the PAST concussion program just to make sure it doesn’t happen to me.”
These are the facts that those of us as wrestling fans don’t want to admit, but they’re all too real. Professional wrestling is comprised of men doing very unnatural things to their bodies while taking unnatural measures to remedy the subsequent problems that arise. And as we’ve learned over the past twenty years, those unnatural measures have some strange and tragic consequences; physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Then there’s the suicide of Mike Alfonso
It’s far too easy for us to look back at the events of the past several years, notice trends and warning signs, and conclude that this or that might have been the primary cause for the tragic events that have occurred over the course of the past 72 hours. What’s not so easy is asking ourselves the questions that are now raised in the wake of this and other tragedies. Specifically, can we continue to enjoy and support a product that not only allowed this to happen, but may have created the situation that led directly to such a horrible turn of events?
I’m not going to put on any airs and say right here and now that I will never again watch professional wrestling. It’s crazy, I know, because all the evidence tells me (and other wrestling fans) that we shouldn’t. We have an epidemic of men and women dying far too young and in many cases under far too suspect circumstances for us to ignore the fact that this industry quite literally kills. But there is something that will always draw us to it; something that we can’t quite pinpoint ourselves (though we will never stop trying). There’s a fairly common saying that applies – “for those that get it, no explanation is needed; for those that don’t, no explanation will do.” That being said, please believe me when I say that now more than ever, I am asking more questions and wondering more than ever if any of it is worth it.
The past several days have been so strange and confusing that quite honestly, I didn’t even know where to start in terms of writing about it. Hell, even with as much as I’ve written now, it only provides a fleeting glimpse at the surface of this story and all subsequent stories that will inevitably arise from it. I don’t know when I’ll be able to start watching wrestling again. It may be tomorrow, it may be next week, it make take a month or months. I honestly don’t know.
I do know this, however: I’ll never be comfortable watching a Benoit match ever again, and there’s a part of me that even when I’m able to watch wrestling, will never fully recover from this tragedy and all the issues that have served as a reminder to myself and so many wrestling fans that this industry is, indeed, a killer.