Former Football Player's Suicide Linked to Brain Injuries Suffered on Playing Field
By Gerri Elder
A forensic pathologist's determination last week that the suicide of former NFL player Andre Waters was related to concussions he sustained on the football field further reveals how brain injuries can have serious, lasting impacts for years after the initial incident.
University of Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu attributed the November self-inflicted shooting death of the 44-year-old Waters to the football brain injuries he suffered during his 12-year career as a safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. Specifically, Omalu said samples of Waters' brain tissue displayed early characteristics of Alzheimer's disease and were similar to that of an 85-year-old man.
Omalu indicated that the signs of depression Waters showed in the years up to his death were directly linked to his football brain injuries. He predicted that Waters' NFL brain injuries would have fully incapacitated within 10 years had he not killed himself.
Omalu conducted the study with the permission of Waters' sister, Sandra Pinkney, and at the urgent request of Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and pro wrestler whose career ended due to numerous concussions. Nowinski was drawn to Omalu after the pathologist previously studied the brain tissues of former Pittsburgh Steelers players Mike Webster and Terry Long, both of whom experienced football brain injuries that led to serious trauma. Prior to dying of heart failure in 2002, Webster suffered brain damage and became homeless. Long killed himself in 2005.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello responded to Omalu's finding by calling Waters' death "tragic" and the subject of concussions "complex." Aiello said that the league will continue to conduct independent research examining current and former players who have suffered concussions as well as observing player equipment, safety issues and medical treatment of this brain injury.
The league needs to do more, according to the family of Waters, medical personnel and personal injury attorneys specializing in brain injury cases. Waters' niece, Kwana Pittman, said that teams should stop sending players back into games after sustaining a concussion and needs to rid the image of the tough football player who must not let an NFL brain injury keep him off the field. The family also hopes that the NFL and other sports continue to research concussions and other sports brain injuries.
The Brain Injury Association of New York State has challenged NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to a public forum on concussions. The association feels that the NFL is disingenuous in addressing the dangerous effects of NFL brain injuries, concussions and head trauma, and ultimately sends a bad message to players in high school and college who watch pro players return to games in which they've suffered a concussion.
While Onulo's finding has sparked much reaction and criticism of the NFL, the suicide of Waters is highly publicized evidence of the severe damages involved with brain injuries. Whether caused on the football field, in a car accident or somewhere else, brain injuries may lead to debilitating physical pain and troubling mental problems, and dramatically alter lives.