Trigger warning for suicide.
A month and a half ago, Junior Seau, a star NFL linebacker, committed suicide.
“Junior is a warrior. He played 20 years in the NFL as a linebacker. You have to be a warrior. Warriors conquer problems they face and they run at them,” [former San Diego Chargers safety] McPherson said Thursday.
McPherson, now the pastor at the Rock Church in San Diego, said that’s why Seau’s death is so puzzling.
Or maybe it’s why it’s not so puzzling at all.
Warriors are strong, and warriors conquer. They get out there, they do things, they solve problems. They don’t need help; they can do it on their own. But depression is not something you can solve by being strong. It’s something that you solve by admitting that you’re weak and asking for help, whether from a friend, a family member, a partner, or a therapist. And the masculine mystique– being strong, being powerful, refusing to admit that you feel pain, refusing to cry– doesn’t prepare you to do that.
This video almost made me want to cry. (Start at 4:40.) Marcellus Wiley, Seau’s teammate, reflects about how Seau always put the team before himself, “never let you see him sweat, never let you see him in pain.” He’d use private doctors instead of those the team provided because he wanted to make sure that any time that people saw him he was at full threat, that no one saw him at his weakest moments. And that applied to his personal life, too, not just football. Wiley remarks, with tears in his eyes: “we were there for you, man. We knew you was the superstar, we knew you was a super person. Come out and tell us you needed us. Junior did it his way, he did it where if he was hurting, you knew it, but you wouldn’t see it… Junior had something he was dealing with, everyone was in debt to him, to help him in his time of need, and that none of us were able to help him before this happened.”
This is the bullshit that pisses me off. It’s no one’s fault. It’s one thing if Junior had tried to get help and couldn’t because of his masculinity– then there would be a villain, then there would be someone to be angry at. But there’s no one, except the stupid bullshit notion of masculinity that says if you admit to weakness you’re a failure, that says that men don’t admit that they’re suffering until they have to do something that can never be taken back. He could have gotten help at any time; but he was too enslaved, too trapped by a toxic idea of manhood, to be able to reach it.
It’s just… so pointless. People wanted to help him; he needed help. And yet he ended up with a bullet in his chest, like the tens of thousands of American men who end up killing themselves every year, because God forbid we admit that men could need help sometimes. That might lead us to question our gender norms! Won’t someone think of the gender norms?
An article about Junior Seau would not be complete without noting two things. First, one factor that may have led to Junior Seau’s depression is the high rate of concussions among NFL football players. Concussions– particularly multiple concussions, particularly when you get one when your brain has not yet healed from the last one– have been linked to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, anger, violence, and (yes) suicide. (Everyone remember Dave Duerson, the Chicago Bears safety who shot himself in the heart so that his brain could be studied for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, i.e., getting way too many fucking concussions?) Why the fuck is this allowed? They either need to figure out a way to play the game of football that will not cause the players brain damage, or they need to stop fucking playing it (at least for players under 18 who cannot meaningfully consent to having their brains damaged). Those are the two available ethical options here.
Second, even as we mourn his death, we must also remember his life. Seau was one of the first Pacific Islanders to truly excel in the NFL. (Or at least so I am told by people who aren’t like this about football.) He shone as a linebacker and served as an inspiration for Pacific Islanders to enter the NFL in any number of positions; at the moment, Polynesians are disproportionately represented in football, partially due to Seau’s example. It’s pretty awesome that he helped to open the gate for young Polynesians to take part in this sport.
In memory of Junior Seau, do something to help depressed and suicidal people. Ask about a depressed friend’s problems, give them a hug, or just sit with them and read. Stand up against the idea that men cannot be weak and that seeking mental health care is the sign of a failure. Donate to a suicide helpline, or volunteer for one.