The Next Generation of Player Safety

Junior Seau with Patriots side view cropped

(Dave Sizer/Creative Commons)

Over the last year, the NFL has put the spotlight on player safety. We’re learning more about concussions and their short and long-term health effects, and as a result helmet to helmet hits on defenseless players will draw much more than the collective wincing of the crowd – now fines and yellow flags accompany such hits. This is all very commendable in my eyes, but it’s not enough. Sorry Aaron Rodgers, but I disagree – there’s lots more that can be done in the name of player safety.

But first, let’s broaden this discussion from talking about player safety to player health. Let’s start with two different definitions of health.
1. The absence of disease, injury, or other ailment.
2. The overall wellbeing of an individual, comprising of physical, mental, social, and environmental aspects that empower the individual in his or her pursuits.

So far the NFL has adopted the former definition, but it’s time for the next generation of player health discussions based on the latter definition. These include mental health, attitudes towards homosexuality, patient privacy, and addiction. More after the jump.

Many NFL players have faced mental health issues including obsessive-compulsive disorder (Mike Neal), addiction (Brett Favre, Johnny Jolly), borderline personality disorder (Brandon Marshall), social anxiety disorder (Ricky Williams), depression (Terrell Owens, Stephen White, Junior Seau), and many more. Like in the rest of society, it’s highly stigmatized and often ignored. Even for people who claim they have 52 family members in the locker room with them, they don’t feel like they can talk about it with any of them for fear they’ll be labeled as weak, crazy, whiny, or pathetic.

Attitudes toward homosexuality can also greatly affect a player’s wellbeing. The homophobic stereotype is so prevalent that Wade Davis said he tried to convince his teammates he was straight in order to secure a spot on the roster. Even now that he’s out he feels that a player on the cusp would be in danger of being cut if he came out. But when people actually talk to the players, the homophobia isn’t found – players would welcome a gay teammate – but still the discussion isn’t happening. Players fearful of losing their jobs and the respect of their teammates are forced to hide a part of their identity, a part of who they are.

Patient privacy is a crucial aspect of respectful care, but far too often players have to come out in public about their own private health status in order to clear their name (as Mike Neal did when he announced he’s battling OCD and his medication is why he failed the drug test). How would you feel if every time you took a sick day you had to announce to all your coworkers why you were sick to prevent them from assuming that you were doing drugs with hookers in a sleazy hotel room? What’s more, we should strive to create an environment where players won’t feel shamed into hiding aspects of their health or identity.

This week we are reliving the struggles that Johnny Jolly had with his addiction. Addiction is a complex and very difficult problem to overcome, especially if the individual’s support network (the team) is taken away from him due to a suspension. The NFL can and should do more. First, find out why the player failed the drug test; don’t pass judgment without all the facts. Give the player a chance to explain and lend context. Second, offer a path back to good graces to incentivize the player with carrots, not just sticks. Instead of simply ending someone’s career, this would better support drug addiction therapy. Finally, add a team psychologist, mental health professional, or therapist to help with the many facets of health that don’t involve torn ligaments and bruises. We hear all offseason with every cut and trade that the NFL is a business. Well, it should start acting like one and invest in its players overall health and wellbeing.

It is vital to address the physical, mental, social, and environmental components of a player’s health. Doing so will even improve his performance and make the game better. The NFL is also uniquely poised to impress more positive attitudes towards mental health and homosexuality on fans. Imagine your favorite player coming out and saying he was gay, or that he suffered from depression. Imagine that player’s entire team coming out and publicly supporting and accepting him. Imagine the impact that can have on the young kids watching at home.

Player concussions are a good place to start, but it’s time the discussion evolves to include the person as a whole.

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