They’re Human, Too: Healthcare and Athletes

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superhuman. While these athletes showcase
a level of skill that makes most people
gasp in amazement, it is important to
remember that they are flesh and bone
human beings. When the stadium lights
shut off and the roar of the crowd subside;
there are significant medical issues, like concussions
and mental health challenges, faced by athletes that
deserve to be discussed publicly.
In 2006, then Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell
Owens (TO) allegedly attempted to overdose on pain
pills. Owens had received a prescription days earlier for
40 pills due to finger surgery. The receiver had only taken
five pills up to that point, which is why Owens’
spokesperson was shocked to find the bottle empty one
evening and Owens putting two pills into his mouth.
After attempting to use her fingers to retrieve the pills,
that were swallowed. Owens’ spokesperson called the
Dallas Fire and Rescue Team.
According to a 911 report, the Dallas Fire and Rescue
team was called out for an attempted suicide of a 32-year
old man who “ingested an unknown large quantity of Rx
pain medication.” The police report further stated that
Owens had admitted to taking the remainder of the medication
and answered, “yes” when asked if he had done so
to harm himself. After the media frenzy began, TO’s
spokesperson stated that it was a misunderstanding and
that Owens had “25 million reasons to be alive” – referring
to TO’s contract.
On Sept. 7, 2008, young Tennessee Titans quarterback
Vince Young threw two interceptions. While these
mistakes would shake any player’s confidence, Young
appeared to refuse to re-enter the game and was injured
when he finally did. Later that night, friends and Titans’
advisors were worried about Young and notified police
after he did not return phone calls. There were also allegations
that he had mentioned “suicide” to his manager
and stated that he had access to a gun. Like Owens,
Young’s media relation staff said that this was a misunderstanding.
The stories of Owens and Young take on new importance
when discussed with the testimony of two-time Pro
Bowler and Philadelphia Eagles player Shawn Andrews.
Andrews has said: “I’m willing to admit that I’ve been
going through a very bad time with depression. I’ve finally
decided to get professional help. It’s not something
that blossomed up overnight. I’m on medication, trying
to get better.”
After the Vince Young scare, Andrews suggested that
depression was the silent scream of many NFL players.
He 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.”
While Andrews was attempting to deal with his medical
issues, the Eagles fined him $15,000 per practice that he
missed. When asked about the fines, Andrews made his priorities
known: “Football is important, it’s a means to an end,
but my mental health is a lot more important. That’s a helluva
lot of money…Money’s good, money’s a necessity, but it’s
not everything. I can’t put a price tag on my mental state.”
Andrews alluded to the fact that many men are sensitive
to depression. But there is an open stigma in dealing with
mental issues for men since admission is often seen as a
sign of weakness. It is within this framework that the
Young and Owens “misunderstandings” can best be understood.
As Mike Messner, professor of Gender Studies at the
University of Southern California wrote: “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 image.”
The issues of male depression are not only associated with
the stresses of their job, but also the physicality. Multiple
studies show that repeated concussions are linked to depression.
One 2007 study examined 2,500 retired NFL players
and 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.
There are tragic examples that show this trend:
• Tom McHale: NFL player who was found dead on
May 25, 2008. An examination of his brain at Boston
University’s School of Medicine found that he had
chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
• Terry Long: NFL player whose autopsy showed brain
damage from his career that contributed to his
depression and suicide
• Andre Waters: NFL player who committed suicide.
At his autopsy, the pathologist stated: “the condition
of Waters’ brain tissue was what would be expected
in an 85-year old man, and there were characteristics
of someone being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.”
The doctor believes the brain damage had come from
or had been quickened by successive concussions.
• Wayne Chebret: New York Jets lineman had at least
six concussions during his career from 1995 to 2005.
He occasionally returned to games in which he had
been knocked unconscious. He recently acknowledged
that he has depression and memory problems
so that he cannot make a routine drive without a
global positioning system.
CTE is a degenerative disease. According to the New
York Times and the LA Times, CTE: “affects the parts of the
brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality, even
breathing, and recent studies find that CTE is a progressive
disease that eventually kills brain cells.” CTE eventually
progresses to dementia with a loss of memory, agitation,
the loss of emotional control and delusions/hallucinations.
The new research appears that athletes may face the
effects of the disease long after they leave the gridiron.
Given the health risks, it is logical to ask why these players
would still play. First, the team doctors that treat injured
players have an inherent conflict of interest. These doctors
have a compulsion to get injured players back on the field
since that is in the best interest of the franchise.
Secondly, injured players that get replaced run the risk
of losing their starting job to a replacement player. Losing
a starting job is risky because there are no guaranteed contracts
in the NFL. With no guaranteed contracts, a player
could be cut and lose paycheck at any time. But most
importantly is the lack of education about the seriousness
of concussions. Ted Johnson, a former NFL player who
retired due to frequent concussions stated: “It’s not like
when you get into the NFL and there’s a handout that says
‘These are the effects of multiple concussions so beware.’”
The NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry. If they wanted
to take a stand for mental health care, they could work
to educate fans about diseases that millions face. These
franchises have a duty to properly treat athletes with
appropriate medical care and give them job security so
that they do not risk their long-term health to ensure their
pay. It is time to treat our athletes as human beings who
have medical problems. It is time for corporations to take
the responsibility for assisting in their health care.

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