Vince Young and the NFL's Depression Denial

Your sports page may have recently induced an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. A pro football star, by all accounts, seemed caught in a spiral of depression. Friends and advisers were worried enough about suicide to call the police. After an ensuing public-relations fracas, the player and the team assured us that it was all a grand misunderstanding.

Two years ago, this was the story of Dallas Cowboys star receiver Terrell Owens. Less than 24 hours after Owens had sleeping pills pried out of his mouth, his PR flack said that the police report was a fabrication and "Terrell has 25 million reasons to be alive" — an ugly reference to the dollars he was due in his contract.

This month it was Vince Young, quarterback of the Tennessee Titans. During a Sept. 7 victory over Jacksonville, Young threw two interceptions, sparking a chorus of boos from the home crowd. Then he seemed to be refusing to re-enter the game — and was injured shortly after he did return. The following night, when he didn't return calls to his cell phone, the police were sent to find him. He had apparently uttered the word "suicide" to his manager, and perhaps a team therapist, and made clear that he was in possession of a gun.

But now Young and the team say that this is a whole lot of noise about nothing.

"I'm fine. I'm good," Young said. "I just needed (time) ... to get through some things. But now I am OK. I was never depressed; I just hurt a little bit. ... When it happens again, I'll know how to handle it."

The response by many columnists and bloggers has been repellent and elucidating. This is why athletes keep these issues under wraps. Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star used this moment to write: "I'm going to do my best to avoid turning this into an I-told-you-so column. But the truth is, I told you before the 2006 draft that Vince Young was primed for NFL failure."

In the NFL, there is no worse sin than failure, and players are expected to shake off losses, injuries and criticism. In football, it is well understood that performance-enhancing drugs, legal and otherwise, are part of that process — just not antidepressants.

In such a high-pressure sport, where contracts aren't guaranteed and any play can be your last, depression lurks like a blindside linebacker. This shouldn't surprise anybody. Studies show that repeated concussions are linked to depression. One 2007 study that examined more than 2,500 retired NFL players found that those who had suffered at least three concussions had triple the risk of clinical depression compared to teammates. Those with one or two concussions were one-and-a-half times more likely to be diagnosed with depression.

And yet the NFL is selling a fantasy about professional football: It's all perpetual adolescence and a nonstop frat party. Fans don't want their star players to be human.

As Mike Messner, professor of gender studies at the University of Southern California and author of Taking the Field: Women, Men and Sports, said to me: "Therapists will tell you that it's much harder for men than for women to recognize the signs of depression, and then to ask for help. Quintuple that for a famous man. Being an NFL star is like being put on a national stage as the ultimate man: tough, decisive, invulnerable. Superman isn't supposed to get depressed, so depression gets viewed as a source of shame, like failing at manhood. ... In failing to discuss and deal with the very human reality of men's vulnerabilities, it seems to me the football establishment is once again giving boys and men a very unhealthy message."

In other words, team and league executives don't want to be upfront about Terrell Owens or Vince Young. And they certainly don't want to talk openly about the story of Shawn Andrews. Andrews, of the Philadelphia Eagles, missed days of training camp in August because, as he told reporters, he was depressed. "I'm willing to admit that I've been going through a very bad time with depression," the two-time Pro Bowler said. "I've finally decided to get professional help. It's not something that blossomed up overnight. I'm on medication, trying to get better."

But the Eagles didn't see Andrews' mental health as a legitimate medical problem and fined him $15,000 for every practice he missed. That wouldn't have happened to a player with a sprained knee. Andrews is now back on the field. After Young's episode, Andrews told reporters that depression is the silent scream of many NFL players.

"When we faced the Patriots, those guys were really concerned, and when we played the Jets, a couple of guys were inquiring — told me if I wanted to talk or needed to talk (to contact them)," Andrews said. "A lot of guys, you'd be surprised, are going through what I'm going through and don't admit it. I think guys are sensitive to it. If they haven't been through it, they know somebody who has."

Surely many fans know someone who has endured the darkness of depression as well. But the NFL, rather than take the opportunity to educate fans about a disease millions of men face, just pumps up the music and gets back to the big frat party. Let's hope more people like Andrews break the silence before tragedy strikes.

32 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Good Work

Nice article, Dave. Everything you say is right on, but you forgot to mention Terry Bradshaw, who has been very open about his battles with anxiety attacks during his playing years and depression after his retirement. Maybe you need to win four Super Bowls to admit you are depressed?

Depression's no joke

Unfortunately, when something tragic happens that's related to depression, it happens to a retired NFL player. I just hope and pray that the league takes depression seriously before T.O., Vince Young or another player crashes under the weight.

2 others

Andre Waters killed himself after being severely depressed due to concussions. Another is Ricky Williams who left football to self medicate his depression with marijuana.

Williams was crucified for his decision, and nobody in the media ever mentions Waters.

Sad but True

The hype that surrounds all professional athletes elevates them--particularly in the public eye--to an unrealistically high standard of image. Just because someone is an athlete does not mean that they don't feel the pain like everyone else. I'm glad you delved into this taboo subject in both a respectfully and incisive way.

Mental Illness

Dave,
In regards to Vince Young, it is clear that he would suffer some depression.A major problem facing African Americans is our reluctance to seek help for mental, emotional, and social problems. This is due to the "superhuman myth" that affects many members of our community.Some areas that you might want to explore;Why are theri no community based mental health facillities in the low income high violence intercity neighborhoods? What are the problems of African American athletes at predominatly white universities.? What are the effects of children of single parent households in African American families.? How much stress is put on star athletes to take care of an entire family?These problems are not unique to African American athletes, but have an adverse effect upon them. It is time for the athletic community to take action and provide the help for these players.

As one who has suffered from Depression

I understand the hopelessness it brings. I almost allowed myself to die from an infection because I was so depressed. Yet because on paper I was fairly successful no one understood. Luckily I was saved and am now doing fine.

Typical NFL

The NFL's stance on depression is in perfect lockstep with it's obsession with marketing it's players as "Sunday Gladiators" and "Gridiron Warrios". Anything that can be construed as a weakness such as depression or anxiety has to be swept under the carpet as quickly as possible lest the mighty NFL marketing system suffer a blow to it's ultra-macho image.

As a person who has dealt with anxiety I can say it is not a weakness, it is just something you have to learn to deal with and it CAN be overcome. It amazes me that we hear so much fodder about the "mental toughness" and players, especially QB's dealing with the "mental side" of the game from broadcasters yet acknowledging something as common as depression is off-limits. Clearly these talking heads have no clue what those words mean.

On a grander scale.....

Anyone competing (and succeeding), in anything, is being overhyped. Business men and veterans being two more that come to mind. Not only are they not allowed to have any weaknesses, but when they do, we are all over it like dogs.

What a pleasant surprise..

This is the first piece of writing I've ever read from you that didn't attempt to turn a story into a racial issue. I enjoy you're writing style, but I'll admit I usually check just to see how you'll spin a story into a racial divide.. Keep up the new theme!

It's a good thing you're impressed

Yeah, Zirin's the guy responsible for racial issues being at the forefront of how professional leagues conduct business. I'm glad you're "impressed" he didn't try to turn this into a racial issue. It's always better to impress you than to address the truth in sports.

For the record I liked this article too, Dave. You don't have to worry about impressing me. Just keep telling the truth.

KZ

The absurdity of race

Good article Dave. I'm still trying to understand you vs. Jason Whitlock. You view black athletes with compassion and understanding of what their experiences are. Jason, the black guy, is hateful, harsh, and critical. One would think he would be able to relate and understand. I'm still scratching my head on this one!

Depression is very real

So very real that many people choose to gloss over it or what have you. We have lost our compassion as a nation, by and large. The people who are compassionate are so beat down they refuse to take a stand. If all of us stood up and offered influenced one persons idea of human life - perhaps the world would be a better place.

On a football/sports note, I strongly believe people won't be happy until sports is of the gladiator/rome ilk - blood, broken bones, death - lauded as heroic acts. Unfortunately, this attitude lends itself to group think much more easily and commonly than a group attitude of care, compassion and forgiveness. To me, it simply speaks to our society in its current incarnation more than man as a whole.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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