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Media speculation on Junior Seau suicide out of bounds

Posted by Mark Leccese  May 6, 2012 02:48 PM

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There are a handful of facts — provable facts — we know about the death last week of former National Football League star linebacker Junior Seau. We know that the San Diego County medical examiner’s office ruled his death a suicide on Thursday, the day after he was found dead in his home. We know that he played 20 seasons in the NFL.

We do not know why Seau killed himself, but that did not stop the media from speculation — and, in some stories, assuming — traumatic brain injury caused by his years of football led to his suicide.

The Boston Globe’s front page story on Thursday, “Seau’s apparent suicide stuns Patriots, league,” featured a smaller headline under the main headline: “Follows deaths of other athletes with brain trauma.” Strictly speaking, this is accurate. It is also accurate to say that Seau’s death followed by just a week the death of former Boston Patriot Billy Neighbors, who died April 30 at the age of 72.

Like so many media stories about Seau’s suicide, the Globe story never states that traumatic bring injury led Seau to suicide but does offer the implication.

The NFL and its fans have become accustomed to dealing with the early deaths of its former heroes.

Former Falcons safety Ray Easterling, a plaintiff in a high-profile lawsuit against the NFL concerning concussion-related issues, died last month at the age of 62 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In February 2011, former Bears star safety Dave Duerson, 50, committed suicide — a gunshot wound to the chest — and left a note asking that his brain be donated for the study of brain trauma in athletes. Recent research has focused on the long-term effects of concussions in sports.

Seau’s similar method of suicide has sparked speculation about brain preservation. Seau, a violent tackler and physical player, was never listed on an NFL injury report with a concussion, according to ESPN. But during the earlier years of his career, awareness of brain injury and concussion was far less than today.

Thursday’s Boston Herald gave the story a two-page spread, with the main story headlined “Shocking death sparks ‘speculation’ over Junior Seau.” The first paragraph of the story is careful not to state a cause but not so careful in what it implies.

Former Patriot linebacker Junior Seau’s death — apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound — bears a haunting similarity to the suicide of another NFL Pro Bowler and comes as the league fights scores of lawsuits from players who say they were never warned about the long-term consequences of head trauma.

Police in Oceanside, Calif., said yesterday they are investigating Seau’s death as a suicide, after his girlfriend found him in a bedroom suffering from a gunshot wound to the chest. That was the same fatal injury former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson inflicted on himself last year, saying in a suicide note that he wanted to preserve his brain so doctors could study it and assess the damage he sustained during his career. Doctors at Boston University said last year they found “indisputable” evidence of moderate brain damage.

“It’s definitely one of those things where you think, ‘Here we go again,’ ” said Garrett Webster, administrator of the Brain Injury Research Institute in California. “You put two and two together and think, there’s got to be some kind of correlation between the two.”

Beneath the main story, sports columnist Ron Borges begins his column (“Another life cut short by an unforgiving game”) not with an implication but with a statement, unsupported by any evidence, that football led to Seau’s suicide.

If the sad truth of Junior Seau’s tragic death yesterday is that it came by his own hand, as Oceanside, Calif., police believe was the case, he is only the latest example of the ravages of a sport whose concussive demands seem to be regularly destroying its own. did the same, in a story headlined “Junior Seau's death again highlights risks of repeated concussions, head injuries."

The apparent suicide of former NFL player Junior Seau Wednesday evening has again highlighted the long-term risks of concussions and repeated brain injuries.

There is no evidence, pending a sophisticated autopsy of Seau’s brain, that he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. (The best magazine piece on CET and football players remains the GQ profile, titled “Game Brain,” of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh pathologist who first identified physical evidence of CET.)

Police told the media Seau left no suicide note. No one alive knows, and no one alive will ever know, why Seau took his own life.

The best and most ethical way to cover the news of Seau’s death is the way the Wall Street Journal did it in Thursday’s paper, with a two-paragraph brief from the Associated Press. No speculation, just attributed facts:

Former National Football League star Junior Seau was found shot to death at his home Wednesday in what Oceanside, Calif., police said appeared to be a suicide.

Police Chief Frank McCoy said Mr. Seau’s girlfriend reported finding him unconscious with a gunshot wound to the chest. A gun was found near him, Mr. McCoy said. Mr. Seau, 43 years old, led the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl after the 1994 season.

That is what the Wall Street Journal editors decided were the facts of the story. The rest — the questions of why — is merely speculation, and speculation has no place in news stories.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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