Behind the wins and losses: Changing the way mental health is viewed in sports

by Michael Ulanday and Eric Crowder on April 25, 2011 · 2 comments

in mental health

As avid sports fans, we easily get caught up in the spectacle of sports. We geek out about statistics. We get fanatical about our favorite teams. We glorify the most outlandish feats of athleticism. And like a number of the younger members of our generation are wont to do, we revere these figures, almost as if they were role models.

In that exaltation, however, most sports fans forget that these athletes exist as individuals outside of the SportsCenter highlights and the numbers in the ‘win’ column. We forget that behind their larger-than-life personas, these athletes are real human beings whose unique gifts put them at considerable risk for mental illness.

Athletes as examples

An earlier post by Cody Dolan talked about Ron Artest and the fantastic publicity he was bringing to mental health treatment. That he raffled his championship ring to benefit programs that place more mental health professionals into schools goes quite a ways in furthering the ideal this blog seeks to promote. And while we should applaud and promote efforts like Artest’s, we must also keep the gravity of stories like Dave Duerson’s and Robert Enke’s in mind.

Dave Duerson

Born in Muncie, Indiana, Duerson was a hard-hitting safety who received numerous accolades (including two Super Bowl rings) throughout his career with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants and the Arizona Cardinals. After retiring from the NFL, Duerson was named NFL Man of the Year for his involvement in various charities and became a proponent in the effort to help retired players receive disability benefits for injuries sustained while playing.

On February 17, 2011, Dave Duerson, 50, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Before doing so, he sent a text message to loved ones asking that his brain be donated to the “NFL Brain Bank.” The “bank” he was referring to is an ongoing study about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) being conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine.

A progressive degenerative disease caused by multiple concussions and head injuries, CTE is most commonly found in athletes who participate in contact sports like football, soccer and wrestling. Symptoms include dementia, depression, memory loss, aggression and confusion, and can appear within months or even years of the last trauma.

As of this posting, it is still unclear if Duerson’s fate was linked to CTE or a confluence of family losses and financial struggles. What is important, however, is the light his last words shed on what is becoming a growing concern in professional sports: the perception of mental health.

Robert Enke

An animal rights activist and loving father, Robert Enke was also one of Germany’s top-ranked goal keepers. Expected to anchor his country’s team in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Enke tragically took his own life in 2009 after a six-year bout with depression. While he was receiving treatment for his depression, many believed he never got over the sudden death of his two year-old daughter. And while we cannot draw a direct line between what Enke did for a living and how his life ended, his story illuminates the fact that talent, fame and success don’t mitigate athletes’ exposure to the pervasive nature of mental illness.

Mental illness is pervasive

In an industry (regardless of sport) where bravado and machismo drive each play, an athlete’s admission of any mental health problem could be just as damaging to a career as a torn ACL. It comes as no surprise, then, that cases of athletes suffering from a mental illness are under-reported (if reported at all). And the instances where depression and mental illness do become a topic of conversation among major news outlets usually follow a tragic event like Duerson’s death.

What Duerson touched on (and must continue to be explored) is the dearth of public understanding of the pervasiveness of mental illness. Whether the onset of mental illness is a product of brain injury or not, the fact remains that awareness—from both a professional and fan perspective—is not where it needs to be. Owners, advertisers, general managers, coaches and the athletes themselves believe that mental illness either doesn’t qualify as a real injury, or is too abstract a problem to deal with.

But while it is easy to criticize some sports teams for ignorance on the matter (Philadelphia Eagles’ lineman Shawn Andrews was fined $15,000 a day for missing training camp due to depressive symptoms), some entities are adopting a more progressive attitude. For example, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) should not be overlooked for the concern shown for their athletes. Following a double murder suicide by Chris Benoit (an act many believe to be related to dementia by way of CTE), the WWE has made improvements to its wellness program, even adopting concussion provisions shared with Olympic training centers.

The truth of the matter is that as fans and consumers, we rarely get to see into the private lives and experiences of these athletes, and as such, are rarely concerned with what happens there as long as it doesn’t affect the product we see on our screens and from the stands. Learning from these tragedies is a way to respect the lives of these men and expand our collective understanding of the role mental health plays in all walks of life.

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