On Sunday, one of the legends of the soccer world was found dead.
Gary Speed was only 42. He played for clubs in England’s Premiership for 22 years and holds the record for the most appearances representing Wales for an outfield player. He had recently taken over as the head coach of the national side and Wales, for the first time in years, had begun to look like a genuinely dangerous team.
But on Sunday, it all ended as Speed took his own life, leaving behind a wife and two sons, aged 13 and 14.
In the coming weeks, we will learn more about the circumstances surrounding the death, but one thing that immediately came to mind upon hearing the tragic news was whether there might be a connection to the string of suicides by football players, boxers, and hockey players who had suffered brain injuries.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been documented in autopsies of 20 or so football players who died young, including Dave Dureson, the Pro-Bowl Chicago Bears safety, who shot himself in February. And there is more general research that shows that people with acquired brain injury are significantly more likely to demonstrate suicidal behaviors than those in the general population.
How might this relate to Gary Speed?
Well, Speed was, as the Guardian noted in its obituary, “an exceptional header of the ball.” Expertly meeting a gun shot of a cross with his forehead and guiding it in his chosen direction was one of Speed’s special talents. And he demonstrated that talent for longer than almost anyone: indeed, there are only two players, Ryan Giggs and David James, who played more games in the Premier League.
Although football and boxing have been getting most of the attention lately, we have known for years that there is evidence of chronic traumatic brain injury in professional soccer players. Indeed, when researchers from the Netherlands looked at a population of professional soccer players in the Netherlands in 1998, the found that they
exhibited impaired performances in memory, planning, and visuoperceptual processing when compared with control subjects. Among professional soccer players, performance on memory, planning, and visuoperceptual tasks were inversely related to the number of concussions incurred in soccer and the frequency of “heading” the ball. Performance on neuropsychological testing also varied according to field position, with forward and defensive players exhibiting more impairment.
We will never know for certain why Gary Speed decided to take his own life, but my hope is that attention will be given to the possibility that the effects of his chosen profession may have contributed to his death. At present, no one is writing about the role that brain trauma might have played in the tragedy on Sunday, but maybe they should.
In the end, soccer may not be the “safe” alternative to football that so many parents (including my own) have long assumed it to be.
This piece was originally published here.