Notes on Another Football Suicide, O.J. Murdock

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The death by self-inflicted gunshot wound of the Tennessee Titans’ O.J. Murdock is noted here in a break from our ongoing real-time coverage of the USA Swimming sex abuse scandal, which proceeds under cover of Olympic flag-waving.

There was a time not long ago when a swimming development would have prompted a break from my concussion inquiries, not the other way around. Once the Olympics are over and football is back in full public thrall, I’ll return to reporting and commenting regularly on concussion culture and its discontents.

However, while I’ll reserve the flexibility to follow events as they happen and connect with each other, I do not intend to be the traumatic brain injury police of the 2012 NFL, NCAA, high school, and Pop Warner seasons. There are too many other (and, frankly, better-resourced) platforms for that task. “Concussion awareness” might or might not be diverting us from an accurate accounting of the sport’s true public health costs, but it’s hard to argue that interim heightened vigilance is a bad consequence rather than a good one.

Yahoo Sports’ Eric Adelson has written a very thoughtful perspective on the Murdock tragedy. See “O.J. Murdock’s apparent suicide another blow to NFL fraternity, but is football really to blame?”,–football-player-suicide-oj-murdock.html.

More than a year ago, I similarly speculated that chronic traumatic encephalopathy awareness, paradoxically, might be feeding a frenzy of sports suicides. See So Adelson’s cautions on jumping to conclusions with Murdock are well-judged. For that matter, the much more headline-grabbing Junior Seau suicide has no known association, direct or indirect, with brain trauma, either; and even the others, from Dave Duerson on down, have only known indirect associations.

Still, I would label Adelson’s take “valuable but incomplete.” What’s still missing, in my view, is an honest evaluation of just how indispensable full-tilt boogie football, in its current proportion and level of participation, really is. “Lack of football also might have” triggered Murdock’s depression, Adelson speculates. The outlet of football, he surmises, might make certain categories of young men “alleviate feelings of self-doubt and sadness.”

Consigning categories of the citizenry to improved self-esteem via dangerous spectacle seems to me a form of the soft bigotry of low expectations. I have criticized the African-American community for its over-subscription to the football dream machine, and I think that criticism applies across the board – to the Texans in Buzz Bissinger’s fine book, Friday Night Lights; to desperate underclass families fighting for a way out; to middle-class black families for whom football prowess, in a kind of backwash of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 Ivy League, is a form of “character-building” and resume-buffing; to journalists like Jason Whitlock and presidents like Barack Obama.

As for a reticence to admit to “battlefield injuries,” as Adelson puts it, I try to teach my children that football players are not warriors. Warriors are the people coming back from southwest Asia, some of them in body bags.

The core cultural nut of football obsession is a tough one to crack, but I don’t think critics should cede the ground to fanboys or allow others to disqualify them because they’re not “good enough” fans. (For the record, I am a fan, certainly of the pro game, though it’s been a while since I organized my Sundays around it.)

The same perspective informs my view of the evolution of the Penn State story – another topic that has gotten short shrift on the blog lately, except to the extent that it might open eyes to the even wider scope of sex criminality in swimming. I’ll get back to Penn State, too, in the coming weeks.


Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick