Mental health in the NFL

 

                            How does talking about mental health help the athlete today and how do teams address it?

 

Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus                                                               Jake White @JakeWhite58 


On October 8th Willie Gay Jr, LB for the Kansas City Chiefs sent a tweet saying “I love you all just know my mental health is F’d up”.  Before that, he was on the Injured Reserve (IR) list with a turf toe injury, and the week of his return he sat out practice for what was referred to as “personal reasons”.  With mental health being a major topic during this season, did the Chiefs handle Gay’s mental health correctly, and how does the mental health take on a different look in the coming years.

 

This season we saw Jay Glazer, a highly respected NFL reporter, open up about his mental health struggles and his bouts with depression and anxiety.  And in years past we’ve seen the NFL fanbase ignore these stories but we saw a dramatic shift this year in how we view this affliction.  We saw Falcons WR Calvin Ridley step away from the league to handle his battle, Eagles OL Lane Johnson spoke out about his longtime fight with anxiety, Colts LB Darius Leonard spoke about his therapy sessions and counseling he goes thru.

 

In 2018 former WR Brandon Marshall addressed the NFL with the hope to destigmatize the topic of therapy and receiving help for mental help. “Man, if you would have asked me eight years ago what does mental health mean to me, I would have said mental toughness. Another part of my answer would’ve been, ‘masking pain’. As football players, we are taught to never show weakness, to never give an opponent an edge. To open up when something hurts, in our culture, is deviant. But when you sit down and think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.”

 

When Gay opened up about his struggles, “I was going through some things, man,” he recalled. “In life, you know, people think these NFL players are bulletproof or whatever. – But I got to the point where I was like, ’I can’t shake this,’ and I had to tell my coaches the people that I work with.”. Gay explained that he was struggling with things in his life that were coming fast, starting from being recruited in high school to the NFL, he wasn’t able to take the steps he needed to balance his life out.

 

In previous years, in older generations, the thought of mental health was looked at as a weakness. Moreover, even today, it takes strength to open up about struggles like this. 

Gay went on to talk about the overwhelming support he received once his tweet went out.

 

“Everybody was checking in on me from coaches to training staff, equipment staff, of course, all my teammates just making sure I was good when I was here. They know me well. They know when I’m having one of those days, and I feel like I’m a guy that when I’m having a good day, you’re going to know, and when I’m not, you can definitely tell. But they did a real good job with just keeping me on the right track and helping me out. A simple ‘you good bro?’ it goes a long way, and they did a real good job with that.”

 

The Chiefs allowing him to take the time he needed for his mental health shows the change NFL teams are taking in this approach.  Using the Injured Reserve allow a team to keep a player on the team and not fill a roster spot.  With the new rule from 2021, teams are allowed to bring back unlimited players after missing three games.  This helps players that have these struggles and allows them to seek help while remaining part of the team.  

 

Several NFL stars addressed their battles with mental health, and this continues a trend of awareness of American sports stars. Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and our own Zach Greinke have all struggled with their mental struggles. 

The Indianapolis Colts started a program called “Kicking the Stigma”, and several players have backed or started causes that focus on mental health and awareness.  

 

You can’t discuss mental health in the NFL without the topic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  We have seen several former NFL players come out and discuss their battles with CTE, and those who have donated their brains to be studied for CTE. Most notably Hall of Fame LB Junior Seau took his life while wrestling with CTE and his mental health.  The NFL has made rules changes, equipment mandates, and opened dialogues about CTE and mental health in hopes of raising player safety and awareness.

 

Mental health is no longer taboo and is a fact.  The NFL and the Chiefs having the ability to allow players to step away and seek help just as if they had a physical injury is a positive.  I hope that this trend continues, because as Willie Gay said, “a simple ‘you good bro?’” goes a long way.  When people see NFL stars having the same issues we struggle with, it makes reaching out for help more attainable. 

 

 

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