The power of football

With each new start of football season, discussions range from fantasy leagues to the danger of concussions from the game.

Football has the power to bring us together, with events like the Super Bowl; but it can also tear us apart, with controversies like kneeling during the national anthem. We feel and relate to players’ turmoil and life events.

Because of their public triumphs and struggles, players act as role models to many. Taking this into account, more and more players are opening up about their personal battles with mental health.

Stigma against mental health in the NFL

Brandon Marshall

To open up when something hurts, in our culture, is deviant. But when you really…think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.

Brandon Marshall is a Pro Bowl Wide Receiver for the Chicago Bears. He is also one of the most prominent professional athletes to advocate for mental health awareness.

He spoke to NFL owners and coaches at their annual meeting in March 2018, emphasizing that the sports world needs to accept mental illness as a disease and work on destigmatizing the topic.

Marshall and his wife founded Project 375 after he received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They work to end the stigma of mental health issues, by raising awareness and educating the public.

Marshall had this to say about his previous dismissal of emotional pain:

“Man, if you would have asked me eight years ago what does mental health mean to me, I would have said mental toughness. Another part of my answer would’ve been, ‘masking pain’. As football players, we are taught to never show weakness, to never give an opponent an edge. To open up when something hurts, in our culture, is deviant. But when you really sit down and think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.”

Lane Johnson, on Brandon Brooks

The Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive tackle, Lane Johnson, responded to questions about his teammate Brandon Brooks’ opening up about his severe anxiety in an interview:

“It’s not foreign. It’s just something that’s not talked about. It’s a stigma where it’s seen as a weakness. When you bring it to light, a lot of people in this world have it.”

This interview was right before Brooks and Johnson would go on to win the 2018 Super Bowl with their team.

Where players turn for help

Because stigma pressures players into hiding their illness, many turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate: numbing intense emotions out of the picture.

Additionally, violence can stem from all of the suppressed emotions. If you depend on numbing your emotions, the second they break through, you might act irrationally.

Barrett Robbins was scheduled to be the starting center in the 2003 Super Bowl, but never made it to the game. The ex-Raiders player suffered from depression and bipolar disorder and was too disoriented to play.

During an interview, All-Pros Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson were presented with headlines about themselves: “Ex-NFL player Larry Johnson Arrested in Vegas. Learning from the Sad Story of Former NFLer Clinton Portis. Johnson Battles Self-destructive Impulses”.

When Portis asked Johnson what individuals in distress with no access to resources should do, Johnson simply said: “Call someone. Anyone.”

Johnson went on to talk about how he wants mental illness to stop being a taboo topic and for everyone to get the help they deserve. He wanted everyone to understand why mental struggles become a thing in the first place. He said that, “Maybe if people can understand the why, they’ll stop being so shocked—and outraged—when people like him [Portis] act the way they do.”

He talked about how he and many other players have never felt more alive than when playing football, especially with many having come from rough childhoods. Conquering the insurmountable pressure and having a successful game is an incredible feeling, but it’s hard for anything to ever compare to that:

“Making that play—It’s a high. And without that pressure, and the chance to conquer it, he forgot how to function.”

Football players’ increased risk for mental health struggle

Football players may be at an increased risk for mental illness due to “chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain.” Potential symptoms may include depression, aggression, confusion, and memory loss.

Former NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, who both took their own lives, showed signs of CTE in post-death autopsies; as well as New York Giants safety Tyler Sash, who passed away of an accidental overdose.

In fact, at least two dozen former NFL players are found to have taken their own lives, and their injuries and inflammation may have played a part.

What the NFL is doing

Many more players have come forward to talk about their issues. Luckily, the NFL has listened and is making strides to create a new culture around mental health.

The NFL Players Association led a campaign in 2017 called “The World Needs You Here.” Each NFL player received a bracelet with this quote, as well as encouragement to spread the message that mental health is just as important as physical health.

In fact, there is a web page dedicated to NFL health, that includes a suicide prevention lifeline specifically for current and former NFL players, staff and their families:

As Brandon Marshall said: “The NFL is such a visible entity, so simply acknowledging [mental illness] exists, just like any other illness, goes a long way.”

We salute players, and warriors in other fields, who champion mental health awareness for the rest of us – we heal by coming together and letting our faults out in the open. As we’ve seen with NFL players, opening up about emotional struggles gives you the chance to feel accepted in your flaws and start healing.