NFL needs to tackle concussions, depression & abuse head-on after Jovan Belcher murder-suicide

CLEVELAND - The NFL has a problem and it's one that not only can no longer be ignored but has to become a focus.

Substance abuse, depression and head trauma are all possible factors leading to violent repercussions in the lives of the league's athletes and those close to them.

Again, a player has committed violence upon himself or others in a tragic and rattling incident. Jovan Belcher was 25, his girlfriend who he allegedly murdered, 22. Their daughter is only three months old. She is now an orphan, a child whose life is forever changed and she's too young to even know it yet.

Belcher killed Kasandra Perkins before going to Chiefs facilities and taking his own life Saturday, according to police.

A Deadspin report attempts to shed some light on the situation and not shockingly head trauma is part of the discussion. A friend of Belcher told Deadspin that Belcher was "dazed and confused, suffering from short-term memory loss" after taking direct hits to the head in the last game he played in on Nov. 18 vs. the Bengals.

The friend also claims that Belcher was abusing alcohol and prescription medications, a toxic combination of factors that led to this senseless ending.

It should never come to this. But this issue is not a new one for players who have been a part of this game. It's becoming a trend and a scary one at that.

In May, former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest. Seau's former teammate Gary Plummer told USA Today he believes Seau suffered more than 1,500 concussions in his career. An autopsy concluded that there were no obvious brain problems or drug abuse, however tissue from Seau's brain will be researched by the National Institutes of Health at the request of his family.

Last year, former Bears player Dave Duerson also shot himself in the chest, and left behind notes telling his family to donate his brain for research. Scientists at Boston University's School of Medicine found he had "moderately advanced" brain damage and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) related to blows to the head.

Thousands of lawsuits from former players accusing the NFL of hiding information that connects head injuries to further brain damage and illness were consolidated into one major one.

That alleged connection is still not certain and remains a controversial subject. There's evidence for and against it. A Slate article disputes the link citing research that says suicide among former NFL players is below the national average.

However, concussions continue to be rampant throughout the NFL. CBS Sports put together a list of team-by-team concussions through Nov. 16 that included 77 players.

A particularly jarring example this season came when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a concussion and continued playing for that series and the next before leaving the game at halftime and missing the next game. The team said Cutler's symptoms were not immediately visible.

The Browns have been in this firestorm too. Last year, Colt McCoy was not properly checked for a concussion after being illegally hit by James Harrison and was put back in the game. It prompted the NFL to assign concussion-specific trainers to each team's sideline.

Last week, Brandon Weeden suffered a concussion after his head slammed into the lower body of Joe Thomas. The Browns had to hide Weeden's helmet to keep him from trying get back on the field. He was cleared by team doctors and started against the Raiders Sunday.

Now 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has said, "I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion." It makes you wonder if players will hide concussions in fear of losing their spot. Do they realize the potential long-term severity of a head injury? It's not like a knee injury where you can't walk or return to the field. The effects are not as obvious to the naked eye but the potential impacts are just as dangerous, if not more.

What is certain is that the NFL needs to continue increasing support for its players. The institution of the concussion spotters on the sidelines is a good step.

It extends beyond just concussions though. Players are suffering through substance and prescription drug abuse. It is unimaginable the pain that a player endures week after week of bone-crushing action. When most retire in their 30s or early 40s, many give up all they've ever known, what made them important and gave them a sense of belonging. Just like that, it's gone.

Since April, four former or current NFL players have committed suicide. It spreads to team employees too, a member of the Browns staff found dead from suicide in Berea this weekend. Depression is an illness that too often goes untreated, men particularly too afraid to come forward and admit it.

It's not something to be embarrassed about. Like any other disease it's a sickness that has to be treated. NFL players and staff need to know that. All of us do.

The NFL has to make sure its players know it. Their new wellness program is

another positive step in that direction. They need to provide that support and make it more than just a website or phone number to call.  Even more so, we need to be there for each other.

Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn summed that up eloquently Sunday.

"We have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us," Quinn said.

Paying more attention won't alone end tragedies but you hope it can help decrease incidents like Saturday's murder-suicide.

Maybe you can't always stop them but it's worth trying. 

Caring - genuinely caring - for people is worth it.

Because a little girl shouldn't be left alone in this world in a couple pulls of a trigger. Violence shouldn't alter lives if there's a chance to prevent it. Life is precious. Shattering it is too easy and picking up those pieces is grueling.

In a race to find a rationale, to make sense of a senseless tragedy, we can't try to make it black and white. You can't boil this down to solely a gun or a hard hit or a prescription drug. It's much more complex than that.

There's not an easy solution or quick remedy. But we can all do a little more - or at least try to - as individuals. The NFL must make sure it does too.

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