If you and your family are planning to watch one of the three NFL games scheduled for Thanksgiving Day or one of the twelve NFL games scheduled for the Sunday following Thanksgiving, your thoughts may turn to players’ health.
Physical trauma including concussions on the field can cause progressive cognitive disorders including Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE and other slow-developing brain diseases may cause behavioral health problems in the present. Players may also struggle with mental health conditions and addiction issues that predate their careers and/or that worsen once they leave the league. Four retired athletes use their platforms to talk about mental health:
Brandon Marshall, former wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, wrote in a 2017 essay for the Players Tribune, “When I first heard the term “mental health,” the first thing that came to mind was mental toughness. Masking pain. Hiding it. Keeping it inside. That had been embedded in me since I was a kid. Never show weakness. Suck it up. Play through it. Live through it. Now, I realize that mental health means the total opposite.” After receiving a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder in 2011, Marshall felt relief. After years of suffering, being able to name the disorder helped him understand it, and understanding it helps him manage it. He wrote, “I always say that football is my platform, not my purpose. I believe my purpose is to serve as an example for people who are suffering from mental illness — to show them that it’s O.K. to seek help.”
Retired linebacker Gerald McRath wrote about his struggles with depression, anxiety, and substance use after an injury pushed him out of the league: “And I think that’s why I didn’t want to go to the hospital that night…It wasn’t the help that scared me. I was afraid that if I told somebody what was happening to me, they would confirm my biggest fear. That I was crazy.” For him, depression led to increased substance use, which contributed to increased anxiety and panic attacks. McRath received 30 days of inpatient care to address his substance abuse issues and mental health, and offered the following advice: “If you’re struggling, don’t wait for something bad to happen. Don’t wait for a wake-up call. Talk to somebody. It’s not as scary as you think. There is hope. There is light. Just talk to somebody. Because fighting alone is the worst way to fight.”
Former Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Lauvale Sape pushed through a traumatic childhood using football as an outlet, but found that the feelings returned once he retired. After he left the league and he and his wife suffered a stillbirth, he wrote “It just felt like my body was deteriorating more and more, and I couldn’t understand why. I kept asking myself, “Why was I thinking this way, why am I not happy, why am I depressed?” I didn’t know anything about depression and anxiety and I didn’t know that I had gotten really angry at the world, and I was very suicidal. I didn’t care about what was going on around me, it didn’t matter anymore.” Describing the way he views depression today, he explained, “It’s not that it’s “bad,” it’s just that we have to understand where we’re at and where we stand with our illness.”
Former Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a devastating spinal cord concussion that ended his career. But even before that injury, other concussions and injuries had caused trauma. In an essay for the Players Tribune, he wrote, “Over time, I grew more isolated and more distant from Courtney and the kids — from everybody, really — while I tried to sort myself out and deal with whatever the hell was going on with me. I thought a lot about the way I was acting, and I just chalked it all up to being fresh out of the NFL and not being in tune with “real life” yet. I figured I was just in a funk because I missed the game, and everything that came along with it.” Jermichael’s accumulated concussions affected his mood and his memory, leading him to seek treatment from a neurological clinic. After starting meditation, therapy, and cognitive retraining programs, he wrote, “I’m as happy and healthy as I’ve ever been, and it’s all because I was able to swallow my pride and go get help.”
Megan Mulvaney is an MA, MPH Candidate and Public Health researcher at Workit. She’s committed to delivering evidence-based addiction treatment and brings over 11 years of experience in healthcare operations to the WorkIt team.