Recently, the NFL has focused a lot of its attention on safety measures and injury prevention in light of new studies emerging about heightened rates of brain damage and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in NFL players. Although mental health encapsulates the physical state of the brain, the term has become entrenched in the realm of concussions, and all of the head trauma drama has neglected the mental illness aspect of players’ mental health. In order to continue to perform well in the national spotlight, professionals in the NFL must maintain sound body and mind, an issue that normally gets overshadowed by discussions of physical injury within the sport.
Another contributing factor in removing mental health from the scope of the NFL is its over-masculinized identity. Take for instance the case of All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam. Unable to secure a permanent spot on a team, due to his sexual preferences, Sam was forced to pursue his football career in the Canadian Football League, signing with the Montreal Alouettes. Being the first openly gay player drafted to both the NFL and CFL, it is no coincidence that as teams denied Sam the ability to exhibit his talents on the field, he was forced to deal with a much bigger issue of staying healthy mentally. The psychological damage of this sort of discrimination due to sexuality has led Sam to a very difficult decision as he continues to be a misfit in the heterosexual, masculine world of the gridiron. As a result he announced on August 14, 2015 through Twitter that he would be taking a break from playing in the CFL as his mental health has become of concern to him. This no doubt is a result of Michael Sam having to cope with the mental stress of being gay in a culture of hegemonic masculinity. The most poignant factor in Sam’s story is that it is not his ability as a player that has contributed to his underachievement, but instead his sexuality is at fault due to the fact that it would be too risky to have a star that exists outside of the parameters of the classic football narrative.
Relative to the culture of the NFL is the image of celebrity, which adds another facet to the prevalence of mental health issues in its players. The NFL sets up a lifestyle that lends itself to the grandeur of affluence, talent, and power. Players are revered for their physical feats on the field and their importance swells far beyond the sidelines, but the extra publicity only alienates athletes from their issues. They spend nights living the life of a legend until the next domestic violence suit plagues the NFL and in order to forgive and forget the incident, some unimportant scandal like Deflate-gate comes to the forefront of the media.
In order to avoid compromising the masculinity of the sport by drawing attention to issues that highlight the underlying psychological factors induced by the NFL as an institution, events both on and off the field are swept aside. Mental illness thus becomes completely taboo as it does not align with the NFL’s masculine narrative.
Contrary to the NFL’s reluctance to use its power to tackle mental illness awareness, Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears has utilized his celebrity as a platform for change. After being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2011, Marshall has spearheaded a campaign bringing attention and “radical acceptance” to the NFL for the support and treatment of players dealing with mental health issues. For Marshall, the game is about acceptance and he feels as if he now has the opportunity to use his fame as Michael Jordan did for HIV. His efforts have already had effect on the League, as other players have admitted to mental illnesses such as social anxiety, depression, and Bipolar Disorder. Whether the NFL can package these cases of mental illness into a sports story within their parameters or not, these mental illnesses must be dealt with by the League and its players. The effects of poor mental health not only tie into behaviors off the field (contributing often to the violent outbursts of players) but they alter game performance, as players’ interactions with coaches and teammates suffer and their ability to play at their best level diminishes.
It seems clear that the heightened pressure and expectations placed on athletes requires theimplementation of sports psychology as a part of safety for athletes. Even below the professional level, there have been a multitude of cases of NCAA athletes committing and attempting suicide as a response to the lack of mental stability they face when up against huge odds to perform well on the field and in the classroom. Implementing more sports psychology programs at both the amateur and professional levels can aid in detecting and combating issues like depression, anxiety, and even serious mental illnesses that would otherwise go undiagnosed in athletes. Whether or not the NFL wants to admit it, their high stakes culture of the game may amount to great reward for teams and individual players, but it is worth it if it is at the risk of the mental health of its athletes.