The latest twist in the Josh Freeman saga is not just bad for the quarterback and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It's bad for the entire NFL.
Freeman is involved in the NFL's drug program, ESPN reported Monday night. That set off all kinds of speculation until Freeman released a statement later that evening revealing he has ADHD and entered the program voluntarily after mistakenly taking Ritalin instead of Adderall.
"Since the confidentiality of my medical status has been publicly violated," Freeman said, "I am choosing to address this matter so that grossly erroneous assumptions about me do not persist."
It's not known who leaked the information about Freeman's situation. Head coach Greg Schiano, who benched Freeman last week, denied any involvement. Not even a player's team is supposed to be made aware when he enters Stage 1 of the program. Freeman, however, suggested that it was an inside job.
"Unfortunately, it appears that some people who may have noticed the testing at my workplace have made hurtful and incorrect assumptions," he stated, "and chosen to disseminate inaccurate and very disturbing information."
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith visited Tampa on Tuesday (for previously scheduled meetings) and asked some hard questions about how this happened. A player's privacy was trampled in a public way. But this leak isn't just problematic for the union, which is launching an investigation on the matter; it's an issue for the league. The NFL's department of player engagement is trying to create an environment where personnel feel comfortable talking about private issues to league representatives. The Freeman revelation isn't going to help that effort.
It's really a huge setback for any effort to help players have some semblance of a safe haven in a public setting. It seems any condition, whether serious or treatable (or both), can devalue a man's worth in a sports franchise. Millions of Americans successfully conquer ADHD (including the most decorated Olympian ever, Michael Phelps), yet the conventional wisdom is that the awareness of Freeman's condition may drive down his trade value. That will have a chilling effect on players' ability to trust team doctors, coaches and executives – relationships that are already tenuous at best.
[Related: Greg Schiano leads coaching hot seat list]
"It would scare the crap out of me if I was a player," said Jimmy Stewart, a former NFL player who is now a licensed professional counselor working with athletes and the military. "I would never ever want to go to anyone in that organization or any organization and talk about my problems. It's dangerous, is what it is."
If this kind of personal information can get out immediately after a starter is benched, what personal information is safe? It's difficult enough for a player to discuss challenges he is facing at home, and now there's another reason to stay quiet. What if a player has a gambling problem? A drug problem? An alcohol problem?
And what if a player has symptoms of depression? What if he wakes up one morning and doesn't want to go to work at the job he has always loved? That could be a sign of deeper issues, and a call to a team physician or a coach (or the department of player engagement) could help immeasurably. The Freeman story, sadly, is another reason to suck it up and try to push feelings aside. After all, confessing to lethargy and sadness could end up earning a player the wrong kind of reputation.
In an era of concussions, fear about the meaning of symptoms and enormous public pressure to perform, this is the worst slippery slope. "Is there something wrong with me?" is a question an NFL player should be able to ask with complete anonymity. Instead, and especially now, there's a risk of the public finding out. That's way too big of a risk for many athletes to take, knowing one coach's decision could cost them their entire career.
"This is so scathing," Stewart said of the Freeman news, "that I think the only way to save face is for Roger Goodell is to suspend whoever did it."
Don't expect the culprit to ever emerge. The only outcome here will be more silence. And fear.
A little over a decade ago, an NFL player faced symptoms of depression during training camp and called his head coach in a panic. The coach told him to take all the time he needed and get help. The player was greatly relieved to have the support of his bosses. He got therapy, returned to the team after getting treatment, and won a Super Bowl. He disclosed his battle with depression on his own terms, and he became a source of pride for his organization and his community. Ten years later, he joined his teammates at a reunion to celebrate their championship in front of cheering fans.
The player was named John Howell. The coach he called that frightful morning was Jon Gruden. The franchise that handled the situation flawlessly was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.