Mental Illness is anathema to football. In a sense topics like suicide and depression are the ultimate signs of weakness in a game whose main pillars are never give up and never accept defeat. This is why whenever the topic of suicide hits the football community it is more misunderstood than in most other demographics. The football community is abnormally adverse to admitting to any kind of weakness, be it mental or physical because of the over emphasis on outdated masculine ideals. You only need look at the reluctance to embrace technology and treatment for concussions to see how difficult it is to get football players and administration to take serious injury seriously. Unless it is a broken bone or a ripped muscle, ailments such as concussions or mental illness are met with extreme denial to say the least. To change a culture as embedded and intractable as this usually necessitates the loss of life (or lives) before people see that something needs to be done. This was the case with heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion was not taken seriously in the NFL until Vikings Tackle Korey Stringer collapsed during summer practices in 2001. His death prompted sweeping changes in how people viewed training practices in extreme heat in the NFL. Before that players were pushed as hard as possible in extreme summer conditions as a way to “toughen them up.” Unfortunately, the changes and precautions were not universal.
Korey Stringer passed in 2001, yet since 1995 approximately 33 deaths of football players at all skill levels have been attributed to heat stroke. Peterson (02/02/2009) This affects me personally as my brother plays football for a small HBCU in North Carolina, and he practices in wildly varying temperature extremes. I constantly worry about this sort of thing. I’m not there to keep an eye on him, and as I see, coaches and institutions obviously do not have the players best interests at heart. If you take kids from abject poverty (where most football players come from) make them the Big Man on Campus, and expect them to not take money and favors when they, if you’ll excuse the phrase, ain’t got shit in life, then you do not have their best interests at heart. But that is a rant for another day. These kids not only don’t take their educations seriously but they do not take their health seriously either. It’s commonly accepted that many teenagers, athletes especially, think themselves invincible and do not look out for their own interests. That is why schools, both High Schools and Colleges, need to do so.
If players, coaches, and organizations do not take such an obviously dangerous condition as heat exhaustion seriously, what are the chances that they would take a condition as Mental Illness seriously? I present to you one Maurice Clarett, someone that in my professional opinion clearly has a strongly developed mood disorder. Currently Mr. Clarett is quietly taken classes at Ohio State and is training to play football in the UFL. Although Axis I mood disorders are largely biological in nature, lifestyle can contribute to symptoms, and I thought that it was fairly obvious that football was not a lifestyle conducive to Mr. Clarett’s sanity. His behavior was very normal-CRAZY-normal-CRAZY-normal-CRAZY. That’s not a hard pattern to diagnose. Yet no one made any attempts, as far as is public record, to get him mental health treatment. And that’s the problem; even if mental health treatment was given, it wasn’t made public. He currently seems to be on a much better path than he has been, focusing on education and getting a career, avoiding the pitfalls of stardom and fame. Jemele Hill recently wrote a column updating his progress in which she stated that although Mr. Clarett seems to be on a good track in life, trying to play football may derail him once more, and I have to agree. Even though he is out in Omaha, Nebraska he still may find a way to get in trouble.
One of the points Ms. Hill makes is that Mr. Clarett could make more of an impact warning NFL rookies away from the mistakes he made than by playing football again. I would lie it if Mr. Clarett did what Ron Artest is doing. Everyone has a medical right to privacy, but some people can do good with their examples, like Mr. Artest for example. Right now he still is not what one would call “normal” but he’s happy, and he’s functional, and most importantly he is a famous Black Man advocating for mental illness treatment. Try now to think of another one who does. Having a hard time? Now think of a Black man you know who could use some mental health treatment (and don’t make this a racial thing, EVERYBODY could use some therapy) the gap is pretty big isn’t it? Mr. Artest’s contribution to Mental Health Awareness is invaluable, even if it goes no further than the Los Angeles area.
I can think of three recent examples where suicide has hit the world of football. James Dungy committed suicide at the age of 18 back in 2005. He is the son of Tony Dungy, widely considered to be one of the most positive people in the NFL, and held up by many as a model man and citizen. To all outsiders, it appeared that they had a great relationship and that James was really happy (creepy fact, if you have TweetBeat added to your Firefox, it makes it seem as if James Dungy has an active Twitter account.) James Dungy was a deeply religious person like his father and, unlike many African-American males, had a close and loving relationship with his parents. Despite all of the supportive factors in his life he still succumbed to suicide. When looking into his behavior before his suicide there were some warning signs that his behavior was changing drastically, but given the way he had behaved for his entire lifetime no one could have foreseen what had happened. This illustrates the randomness with which suicide strikes, and how many times there really is nothing anyone can do. But in some instances, there are preventative measures. Possibly.
Peterson, Dan (02/02/09). “Heat Stroke Deaths in Football ‘All Preventable’”.
Hill, Jemele (09/02/10). “Maurice Clarett’s Misguided Return”
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John Minus is a noted Bon-Vivant, Raconteur, and all-around Anti-Hero. He has a podcast called the Alter Negro Sho and co-hosts the Non-Productive Podcast. He can be contacted on twitter: www.twitter.com/DonCoyote and by his email [email protected]