When it comes to mental health, the NFL has appeared to be making strides toward dismantling the stigma that causes many people to avoid diagnosis and treatment. In 2019, the league, along with the Players Association, formed the Comprehensive Mental Health and Wellness Committee. There’s a multi-level mission statement that includes the development of “educational programs for players, coaches, club personnel, and players’ family members regarding mental health and wellness.” The statement goes on to say that the committee works to reduce the stigma and promote suicide prevention and awareness through collaboration with local and national organizations. Some of the major areas of struggle for NFL players are the transition into and out of the league and navigating injury. The committee also mandated that each team employ a behavioral health clinician for a minimum of eight hours per week.
Last May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, the league launched a series of videos appealing to players, fans, and everyone else to embrace and prioritize mental health. A number of current players, including Solomon Thomas, Joey Bosa, and Ali Marpet, made videos where they discussed a number of topics. Thomas dealt with depression and anxiety following the suicide of his sister. Bosa spoke on his former tunnel vision where he only focused on his physical health. Marpet opened up about the importance of having a support system. All of this seems fine and well, but some ongoing actions by the league and some of its media show that there is a long way to go when it comes to the erasure of behavioral health stigmatization.
While the mandated presence of clinicians is a good move, several players remain hesitant to take advantage of the resource. After all, depression and anxiety, among other conditions, are prevalent despite the presence of psychologists and therapists. The same thing that prevents Joe in accounting from seeking therapy is the same thing that prevents players from walking down the hall in the facility and at least speaking with the team clinician. I would even venture to say that the scrutiny is magnified since treatment is at your place of employment. The league’s reputation of “next man up” often leads players to mask or play through injuries and the same could be said when it comes to matters of the mind. Speaking with the NY Times, Thomas detailed the attitude toward therapy when he entered the league. The defensive tackle was in his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers when a teammate insisted that going over to the team therapist’s table during lunch was an absolute no-go. According to Thomas, the teammate insisted that they would “look like we’re crazy” if seen interacting with the therapist. That was news to the Chicago native who played college ball at Stanford. He says that the attitude toward mental health when he entered the NFL was different from how his college program had approached the topic. While it was talked about at the very thinnest layer of the surface level, deeper conversations were avoided. According to the now-New York Jets player, there was a fear of appearing damaged in a world of constant evaluation: “It’s like you are being judged for everything you do. Guys are cut, traded and signed every day. As much as you want to say it should be different, it’s hard, because you might open up to someone one day, and they’re gone the next day.”
While the current crop of players is shifting the paradigm, the league needs to catch up. As Thomas mentioned, there is perpetual assessment that continues to limit conversation regarding the still-taboo perception of mental health. Take Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley for example. It was announced during the Falcons’ home game against the Carolina Panthers on Halloween 2021 that the former first-round draft pick would be stepping away from football to focus on his mental health. As someone in the press box when this announcement came through our Twitter feeds simultaneously, I can attest to the snickers and whispers that went through the room. In his tweet, Ridley stated, “”These past few weeks have been very challenging and as much as I’d like to be on the field competing with my teammates, I need to step away from football at this time and focus on my mental well-being.”
— CALVIN RIDLEY (@CalvinRidley1) October 31, 2021
It was Ridley’s second inactive game for Atlanta; he did not make the trip to London for the team’s game against the New York Jets three weeks earlier. The move wasn’t unprecedented and is becoming more common in the league. That has not stopped sports media from pushing the antiquated narrative that taking care of or acknowledging one’s mental health is “weak.” Astonishingly, this perspective is more prevalent amongst media personalities that are former athletes themselves. In discussing Ridley, Marcellus Wiley was less than sympathetic. The former defensive end, who played a decade in the NFL, insists that there’s a “protective layer” that prevents further questioning when mental health is involved. He goes on to say that players can contribute to their own mental health struggles by not blocking the outside noise — Twitter, for example. However, his premise that football is built on Darwinism and isn’t for the mentally “weak” is a poor tool to hammer his point home. Drafted in 1997, he was not part of a generation that was encouraged to say how they feel – at least not at work. As far as the league’s strides toward normalizing the importance of behavioral health have come, there is still a ways to go.
This past weekend, the NFL Draft took place in Las Vegas. The Carolina Panthers drafted quarterback Matt Corral. No sooner than the pick was announced, the former Ole Miss quarterback’s issues with mental health were highlighted along with his in-game highlights.
From our NFL Draft coverage: The #Panthers traded back into the third round and took #OleMiss QB Matt Corral. They viewed his film as the best of all the QBs. But there was a lot more to sort through. pic.twitter.com/GfJdA3z3Zg
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 30, 2022
On the national broadcast, NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport suggested that Corral’s draft stock slid due to “a multitude of issues including alcohol and related issues.” Rapoport goes on to say, “He admitted publicly to battling depression. He has had ‘unreliable behavior’ off the field and he really, really struggled in some interviews with teams.” In other words, being open about his mental health battle caused his value to decline in a league that is supposed to be working toward encouraging players to be open about any mental health troubles they are having? That’s one heck of a conundrum. When asked about Corral, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule stated that Corral’s ability to overcome obstacles is one of the things that attracted the team to him. “I think we have a very high standard for character. We do learning evaluations, we do intelligence evaluations, we do psychological evaluations, we do a lot of work. I think everyone in their life goes through things and I think we do a really good job of trying to delineate between people who have an issue or problem that can’t be overcome with people who are going through some thing in their lives. I don’t know about you but when I was 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 I certainly went through things. I really respect people who have been through things and are powerful enough, and open enough to talk about them, and Matt is definitely one of those guys.”
While several coaches and organizations may be of similar mindsets, the tide won’t completely change until the league as a whole develops this perspective and puts it into practice at all stages of a professional football career – from draft assessment to playing years to post-career.