When the news of Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen’s incident splashed across the landscape, I began to reflect. For those unaware, Griffen entered a mental health facility due to erratic and what people deemed as unusual behavior. If you read this account from his wife, Griffen battles his inner demons on a daily basis. If you have a heart in your chest, pray for that man’s family. Yet, Griffen’s struggles with mental health issues are not entirely new to the NFL. In fact, these personal traumas dot the canvas of league history. What you do not know is how long the league chose to ignore mental health.
In 1992, the Bears drafted Alonzo Spellman with the twenty-second overall pick. For six seasons, Spellman excelled as a pass rusher. While never ascending to elite status, the former Ohio State product carved out a decent career in Chicago. Yet, on June 12, 1998, Spellman and police engaged in a standoff. Subsequently, he left treatment by just walking out in only pants. I remember hearing jokes from players and fans alike. Spellman was “crazy” and that is how football players blow off steam. Years later, doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. Since his playing days ended, Spellman continues to fight his demons. After a lengthy stay in federal prison, he racked up smaller offenses. In retrospect, Alonzo Spellman needed help early. When he served no use to the league or union, football casted him aside like refuse.
Two months after the Spellman incident, Minnesota Vikings rookie Dimitrius Underwood walked out of practice. One day earlier, he inked his rookie deal. Underwood, the 29th overall selection appeared detached and aloof. He presented signs of profound mental illness. Again, the mocking and derision echoed through fanbases and the league. People were more concerned that Underwood forfeited 1.75 million dollars, instead of taking note of red flags.
For anyone that watches football, there needs to be a moment of respect. Players step onto the field, knowing that someone in an opposing jersey will try to make destructive contact. Yet, people forget that, when these players take the pads off, they are people. Flesh and bone, not metal and wiring. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, fans and teams only care about the player’s physical well-being. When those bright lights flash, nothing else matters. Meanwhile, many players live with the otherworldly pressure in their heads.
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For players like Griffen, Spellman, Underwood, even Jonathan Martin, another hurdle exists. In the Black community, mental health discussion remains taboo. Relatives will mock, deride or shame you into thinking that you can power through most mental anguish. Terms like sensitive, moody and thirsty minimize pain. In addition, where can these athletes turn? In some cases, Black people are taught to “not go running to the White man and tell your problems” Meanwhile, people endure years of pain without a scintilla of help. Now, layer in athletic ability, money, and fame. People see money as the ultimate cure-all. Granted, it will wipe out financial stress, it does little for the mind. In some reaches of the Black community, if you are rich, there is no need for depression. Congrats, you made it. Unfortunately, the ongoing mental strife does not recognize currency.
Is it the NFL’s fault that Black athletes face this? No. The onus is on the members of the Black community to open up and accept mental illness as a real condition that requires treatment. Just because you cannot see it with eyes or x-rays, does not mean it’s fake.
As a result of the shaming, players continue to bottle up emotions and suppress asking for help. Over the course of time, those feelings will rear their heads and that is how incidents develop. Truthfully, many aspects of the Black community can alleviate the stigma.
Where to Help
When CTE and concussions roared into the public consciousness, outrage flowed like a waterfall. On the other hand, mental illness, which is an overwhelming factor in player suicides, goes unnoticed. With so much attention placed on physical safety, where is the devotion to mental safety?
If the NFL and players’ union want to truly benefit the athletes, work harder to provide extensive care for players. That is to say, if a player retires, follow up and provide more counseling. In all honesty, players made these two entities billions of dollars and see only a fraction.
In reality, mental illness predates ACL/MCL tears and sprains. While we will never know what went wrong for Griffen, Spellman, Underwood, et al, we can acknowledge the issue.