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Sean O'Haire: A stark reminder about the long term-effects of brain trauma?

The more we learn about the circumstances of Sean O'Haire's death, the more it seems like the long term-effects of brain trauma from his career in pro wrestling, MMA and kickboxing, could at least partially be to blame.

The Natural Born Thrillers in WCW
The Natural Born Thrillers in WCW

As you should all know by now, former WCW and WWE wrestler Sean O'Haire passed away earlier this week at the tragically young age of 43. What makes the story even sadder is that the cause of death is believed to be suicide, as his body was found by his father with a rope tied around his neck and connected to his bedpost. No father should have to see such a painful sight. Sources close to the deceased quickly indicated that O'Haire had been battling depression and substance abuse issues before his death. Unsurprisingly, it has since come out that O'Haire had been admitted to WWE-sponsored rehab six times since WWE's former talent rehabilitation programme began in September 2007.

Personally I've been very disappointed at the media's coverage of this story so far, which has ignored a glaringly obvious potential factor in O'Haire's deadly downward spiral: the long-term effects of the brain trauma and concussions he would have inevitably suffered during his pro wrestling and fighting career.

This issue first came to light in the aftermath of the infamous scandal of Chris Benoit's horrific double murder-suicide. At the request of Christopher Nowinski, Mike Benoit allowed an autopsy to be conducted on his son's brain by the Sports Legacy Institute. The results were shocking. They found that his brain displayed large amounts of abnormal Tau proteins and concluded that he had been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that can lead to symptoms also found in dementia, like memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.

When Andrew "Test" Martin became the second WWE wrestler to be diagnosed with CTE in December 2009 after dying from an accidental overdose of the painkiller OxyContin earlier that year, the Benoit findings could no longer be written off as an isolated incident and suggested that the condition could be a lot more prevalent than previously believed.

Recent research at Ohio State University has also offered an alternative biological explanation as to why a concussion can lead to depression years later:

"A head injury can lead immune-system brain cells to go on "high alert" and overreact to later immune challenges by becoming excessively inflammatory – a condition linked with depressive complications, a new animal study suggests.

The findings could help explain some of the midlife mental-health issues suffered by individuals who experience multiple concussions as young adults, researchers say. And these depressive symptoms are likely inflammation-related, which means they may not respond to common antidepressants.

An added complication is that aging already increases brain inflammation. So on top of normal aging concerns, people who have had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) experience added inflammation caused by magnified immune responses to so-called "secondary challenges," such as a second head injury, infections or other stressors."

Basically, it seems the more we learn about concussions, the worse the news gets about their long term effects.

It's worth noting that in just over a decade at least thirteen wrestlers have died by suicide (Crash Holly, Mike Awesome, Benoit, Devil Bhudakahn, Adam Firestorm, Tony "Ludvig Borga" Halme, Chris Kanyon, Andre Baker, Shawn Osborne, Larry Sweeney, Brain Damage, Mike Graham and O'Haire), several of whom were known for their willingness to take unprotected chair shots to the head and do other dangerous in ring stunts, whilst both Halme and O'Haire went into combat sports after their professional wrestling careers were over and both suffered multiple defeats by knockout. Similar to O'Haire, Awesome, Benoit and Bhudakahn all hung themselves in a six month period in 2007.

In Kanyon's case, he had even contacted Nowinski shortly before his death, so worried was he that the dozen plus concussions he had suffered as a wrestler had contributed to his depression. Mike Passariello, a friend of Kanyon's, told The AWL that "Chris went from a happy adjusted guy to someone who clearly suffered from brain damage. Watching him deteriorate over those years was very painful."

It's highly likely that O'Haire suffered from a degree of brain damage too, given how overmatched he was in many of his shoot fights, not to mention all the bumps he took in pro wrestling. As Dave Meltzer explained in his rundown of O'Haire's career for our sister site, he was brought in by K-1 with very minimal kickboxing training so they could have a former WWE name for their top native star Musashi to slaughter on their 2004 New Year's Eve show and that's indeed what happened. Nevertheless, he was still used by K-1 on their next three Las Vegas shows and unsurprisingly lost all those fights by KO too. O'Haire fared better in MMA going 4-2, but still got knocked out in his only Pride fight to Butterbean where he was paid a $10,000 bonus to keep the fight standing.

O'Haire also clearly underwent a similar personal deterioration with his natural aggressiveness (he was a known local troublemaker for getting into bar fights long before he entered the world of pro wrestling) seemingly being exacerbated over time, leading to several brushes with the law for random acts of violence.

Firstly, he was reportedly found guilty of assaulting a woman at a dance club in June 2004 and got involved in a brawl outside a bar in March 2007, which left him with a fractured orbital bone amongst other injuries:

Haire was found guilty a year earlier of assaulting a woman at the former Club Hypnotic, a dance club, in June 2004, according to Hilton Head Municipal Court staff.

A sheriff's report filed then alleged Haire argued with a woman and pushed her to the ground. Her female friend came to her aid. Haire punched the second woman before kicking her in the back while she was on the ground, according to the report. He was charged with two counts of assault, but was only convicted of one count. Before going to trial, Haire was in jail for 11 hours. He was sentenced to time served.

In the March 30 incident, Haire filed a report alleging he was defending a friend jumped by three men at the "Barmuda Triangle" when 28-year-old Juan Brantley punched him in the eye. The blow fractured Haire's orbital lobe and resulted in other fractures to his face and skull, the report states. Vision in his left eye is impaired and he faces extensive plastic surgery, doctors told deputies....

Witnesses dispute Haire's version and say Brantley was acting in self defense.... Dave Robertson, general manager of Hilton Head Brewing Co., and several witnesses who contacted the Packet on Friday say Haire was the aggressor. They say a friend of Haire's went into the bar to start the fight and Haire was waiting outside to participate in it.

On September 9th, 2009, O'Haire was arrested for allegedly choking his girlfriend:

"Sean Haire -- aka Sean O'Haire -- was arrested early Sunday morning for battery and criminal trespassing after his girlfriend told cops he violently attacked her at her home in Savannah, GA.

According to the police report, the woman claims Haire -- who's now a 6'6" tall, 270 lbs MMA fighter -- stormed downstairs unprovoked and "started screaming and throwing items around her."

Moments later, Haire's girlfriend claims he "began to choke her while calling her a bitch and a whore."

According to the report, Haire's girlfriend said she "does not know what caused the sudden attack, but that it has happened in the past on several occasions."

He was also arrested for battery again on November 23rd, 2011, but the circumstances behind that incident are unknown. I don't bring these incidents up to drag O'Haire's name through the mud after he's died, but because they paint the picture of someone who could have unknowingly been suffering from CTE like Chris Benoit and Test did before him.

This post isn't meant to be overly critical of WWE, who have taken great strides over the past decade to better protect their wrestlers by banning chair shots to the head and the introduction of the ImPACT concussion management program where wrestlers need to pass cognitive testing before returning to the ring after suffering a concussion. However, the suicide of Sean O'Haire should be a reminder to WWE to remain vigilant about the dangers of blows to the head and should make them consider if more needs to be done to help their prior generation of performers who weren't protected by such measures in the past. In particular, the fact that O'Haire unsuccessfully went through WWE-sponsored rehab so many times suggests that rehab without providing the offer of regular counselling afterwards and free neurological checkups in conjunction with it may prove to be a futile endeavour in cases like O'Haire's.

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