Friday, December 30, 2005


Dungy & The 'S'-Word

It was the elephant in the room that, seemingly, no one wanted to talk about. The coverage on Indianapolis Colt coach Tony Dungy dealing with the sudden death of his 18-year old son James was appropriately respectful.

ESPN and other sports outlets focused on how soon would Dungy make it back, how would the team react in the short-term and the long-term, various experts were brought in to discuss whether something positive can come from such a tragedy.

Yet, it seemed out of concern for family "privacy" that there was an active avoidance of the "s"-word -- suicide? Yes, it was mentioned, "apparent suicide." But, there was no desire to grapple with some of the broader implications of that fact.

Obviously, one could read between the lines when Coach Dungy delivered a message to parents during his eulogy to James:
"I want to urge you to continue being who you are because our young boys in this country, they need to hear from you," he said. "If anything, be bolder in who you are. Because our boys are getting a lot of the wrong messages about what it means to be a man in this world. About how you should act, and how you should dress, and how you should talk, and how you should treat people. They don't always get the right message, but you guys have the right messages."
Even the statement that Dungy and his wife released ached for some public context: "We loved our son very much, he loved us and we miss him terribly. James was a good young man with a compassionate heart and we were glad to have him for 18 years...and that God has him now for the rest of eternity."

What was left out of the ellipses -- which may tell you something about the editorial biases of some editors -- was this phrase (picked up from a television camera), " We were also glad that he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior..."

One of the awful aspects of suicide is that some religious denominations consider a major sin -- despair that leads one to turn away from God and end one's precious gift -- and consider that those who commit it can never be in God's presence. Obviously, these are not the types of discussion one expects on cable television at any time. Furthermore, it is clear that Tony Dungy's faith is something that endures with him in the best and the worst times. His faith tells him that his son is with his God.

However, the broader question of a teen committing suicide -- a teen from a successful black family, yet, should have had some context.

Which is why I'm glad Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane
asked this question: "[H]ow common is suicide among young black men? Is it on the rise?"

Kane explores the fact that suicide is a topic oft-ignored within the black community -- particularly so, given that African-Americans tend to be more religious than their white counterparts. He concludes:
Remember that James Dungy was only 18 years old.

If toxicology reports reveal that he did, in fact, commit suicide, then that opens up a critical new area of discussion for black Americans. Why did James Dungy commit suicide? Was it depression? If it was, why didn’t he seek treatment or help?

Help is the crucial word here. Help is what potential suicide victims need. And black demagogues crying lynching when a young black man commits suicide is a far cry from help. That simply compounds the problem.

Within a 17-month period in the 1990s, I lost a brother to homicide, one sister to cancer and another sister to a heart attack, and I’m still sure I have no idea what Tony Dungy has been going through the past week. His only consolation might be that his son’s possible suicide finally starts the much-needed dialogue within black America about why there has been an increase in suicide among young black men.


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