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The NFL's in denial about depression
Your sports page may have recently induced an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. A pro football star, by all accounts, seemed caught in a spiral of depression. Friends and advisors were worried enough about suicide to call the police. After an ensuing public relations fracas, the player and the team assured us that it was all a grand misunderstanding.
Two years ago, this was the story of Dallas Cowboys star receiver Terrell Owens. Less than 24 hours after Owens had sleeping pills pried out of his mouth, his PR flack said that the police report was a fabrication and "Terrell has 25 million reasons to be alive" -- an ugly reference to the dollars he was due in his contract.
Last week it was Vince Young, quarterback of the Tennessee Titans. During a Sept. 7 victory over Jacksonville, Young threw two interceptions, sparking a chorus of boos from the home crowd. Then he seemed to be refusing to re-enter the game -- and was injured shortly after he did return. The following night, when he didn't return calls to his cellphone, the police were sent to find him. He had apparently uttered the word "suicide" to his manager, and perhaps a team therapist, and made clear that he was in possession of a gun.
But now Young and the team say that this is a whole lot of noise about nothing. "I'm fine. I'm good," Young said. "I just needed (time) ... to get through some things. But now I am OK. I was never depressed; I just hurt a little bit. ... When it happens again, I'll know how to handle it."
The response by many sports columnists and bloggers has been repellent, and elucidating. This is why athletes keep these kinds of issues under wraps. Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star used this moment to write: "I'm going to do my best to avoid turning this into an I-told-you-so column. But the truth is, I told you before the 2006 draft that Vince Young was primed for NFL failure."
In the NFL, there is no worse sin than failure, and players are expected to shake off losses, injuries and criticism. In football, it is well understood that performance-enhancing drugs, legal and otherwise, are part of that process -- just not antidepressants.
In such a high-pressure sport, where contracts aren't guaranteed and any play can be your last, depression lurks like a blindside linebacker. This shouldn't surprise anybody. Studies show that repeated concussions is linked to depression. One 2007 study that examined more than 2,500 retired NFL players found that those who had suffered at least three concussions had triple the risk of clinical depression compared to teammates. Those with one or two concussions were 1 1/2 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression.
And yet the NFL is selling a fantasy about professional football: It's all perpetual adolescence and a nonstop frat party. Fans don't want their star players to be human.
As Mike Messner, professor of gender studies at USC and author of "Taking the Field: Women, Men and Sports," said to me: "Therapists will tell you that it's much harder for men than for women to recognize the signs of depression, and then to ask for help. Quintuple that for a famous man. Being an NFL star is like being put on a national stage as the ultimate man: tough, decisive, invulnerable. Superman isn't supposed to get depressed, so depression gets viewed as a source of shame, like failing at manhood. ... In failing to discuss and deal with the very human reality of men's vulnerabilities, it seems to me the football establishment is once again giving boys and men a very unhealthy message."
In other words, team and league executives don't want to be upfront about Terrell Owens or Vince Young. And they certainly don't want to talk openly about the story of Shawn Andrews. Andrews, of the Philadelphia Eagles, missed days of training camp last month because, as he told reporters, he was depressed. "I'm willing to admit that I've been going through a very bad time with depression," the two-time Pro Bowler said. "I've finally decided to get professional help. It's not something that blossomed up overnight. I'm on medication, trying to get better."
But the Eagles didn't see Andrews' mental health as a legitimate medical problem and fined him $15,000 for every practice he missed. That wouldn't have happened to a player with a sprained knee. Andrews is now back on the field. Last week, after Young's episode, Andrews told reporters that depression is the silent scream of many NFL players. "When we faced the Patriots, those guys were really concerned, and when we played the Jets, a couple of guys were inquiring -- told me if I wanted to talk or needed to talk [to contact them]," Andrews said. "A lot of guys, you'd be surprised, are going through what I'm going through and don't admit it. I think guys are sensitive to it. If they haven't been through it, they know somebody who has."
Surely many fans know someone who has endured the darkness of depression as well. But the NFL, rather than take the opportunity to educate fans about a disease millions of men face, just pumps up the music again and gets back to the big frat party. Let's hope more people like Andrews break the silence before tragedy strikes.
Dave Zirin is the author of "A People's History of Sports in the United States."