How we source our lives from sports: Mental Health

Last summer a close friend got an unannounced visit from a sibling. We’ll call him Tony. Tony has been homeless for close to six years now. The 26-year-old was last seen featured in a gorilla style video of a street fight in Chicago, 2,000 miles from his legal place of residence. It did not go well for the gentleman who is one of the thousands of mentally ill, homeless, citizens being attacked while roaming this country.

A hardworking, educated, and decent family has cared for Tony, born to a woman with serious substance abuse problems. Befuddled relatives can’t make sense of what’s perceived as a choice to forgo living in comfort with a mother who rescued, and took him in as an infant.  That’s the thing with mental illness. It makes no sense for rational people applying logic to something that’s highly illogical.

Similarly, sports fans look at behaviors of athletes as mostly a series of logical choices. The fishbowl of competition can alternately magnify or ignore the human condition. Drawing attention to mental health is analogous to discussing injuries for a billion dollar industry. It impinges on the bottom line.

The physicality of football  engenders its own unique risks of cognitive damage. Just as the NFL is being forced to discuss concussions and head injuries, the league is also quietly (and slowly) coming to terms with behavioral health.

As difficult as it is to reconcile violence on the field with compassion; it’s time for that to happen. Especially as two talented athletes join the growing list of players impacted by mental illness. The league in its response seems to be solely focused on the rules. Primarily, how much time to suspend and for which infraction. What those players deserve is attention to the unwritten ones. The rules of life.

Raiders Pro Bowl linebacker Aldon Smith, and Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, have given team owners an opportunity to candidly discuss a problem systematically handled by surreptitious visits to the player, or his agent.

What we know is Gregory has checked himself into a treatment facility for an undisclosed illness. He faces an additional suspension from the league on top of the four-game ban he’s set to serve at the start of this season. Aldon Smith was once again the center of idiosyncratic behavior. The former defensive rookie of the year is currently serving a one year suspension for substance abuse.

A Periscope video from Smith’s account titled “Fire-up session” featured a man with a lit marijuana cigarette in his hand. We never see his face, but hear “They don’t know it’s me,” from the male voice.“It’s not like I put Aldon Smith.”

There were disquieting signs early for both players.  Before the 2015 draft ESPN’s Ed Werder said Gregory had off the field issues “That could be very troubling, and if that’s the case, I hope he gets all the help he needs.”

Smith’s list of personal conduct violations resulted in a nine-game suspension last season. His infractions include issuing a bomb threat to a TSA agent at LAX, he was stabbed at a house party and two other DUIs before the recent Periscope fiasco. “We care about that guy, deeply,” said former 49ers coach Jim Tomsula. “If you are struggling, go get help.” Tomsula emphasized, “He will not have to walk this road alone.”

By no means is the NFL or any professional sports league a moral compass. We shouldn’t expect a business to be as compassionate as young Tony’s family. It is however incumbent on an employer to begin in earnest to address behavioral health just as it would any other illness. As a whole, this is how we source our lives from sports.


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