The NFL is going to fine Brandon Marshall.
It should be following his lead instead.
The Bears receiver's decision to wear green cleats Thursday in his team's game against the New York Giants in support of mental health awareness week is a violation of league policy. Marshall, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011, has been a public advocate for mental-health awareness, and he will match the NFL's fine with a donation to his charity. It's a noble move, and it couldn't be more timely: Former NFL player Paul Oliver committed suicide last month, and the airing of "League of Denial" on PBS this week sent a chill through the entire NFL community.
The documentary lent strong credence to the belief held by many that the NFL did far too little to respond to a growing concussion crisis it could have seen coming. The tie between the sport, head trauma and serious later-life aftereffects is difficult to refute, even though the science is not at the conclusive stage yet. The argument that players know what they're getting into when they pick up the sport is no longer possible to defend in good conscience.
The question is: What now? What can the NFL do in this era when concussions cannot easily be prevented and their consequences are anywhere from unknown to life-threatening?
One crucial step is what Marshall is doing: raising awareness of mental-health issues.
Countless players, past, present and future, will have symptoms that cause them worry. Perhaps they'll feel depressed, or withdrawn, or confused, or scared. Those could be from past head trauma, but it's more likely those feelings come from the transition between life phases: stress from trying to make a team; or having a first child; or getting traded; or living without football for the first time. Whatever the cause, talking about it in a safe environment helps. The NFL needs to do more to create that safe environment and make it known that seeking it out is easy and confidential. You can't undo a concussion, but you certainly can treat many forms of personal struggle.
"It's hard for [players] to know whom to trust," says Lamar Hunt Jr., son of the founder of the Kansas City Chiefs, a team shaken by Jovan Belcher's murder-suicide last year. "If they're struggling with drinking or marijuana or something more serious, I don't think they know there's a clear path."
Mental-health issues carry a huge stigma everywhere in society but particularly in football, where men are lionized for playing through all sorts of pain. The "soft" label is one that sticks with a player like a stain, even when it's not warranted. And too often players and coaches confuse psychological problems with weakness. Shrugging something off is considered brave, even if it's a short-term solution that ends up coming back to hurt a player and his team.
"Men are more avoidant," says Hunt Jr. "Young men are going to be particularly avoidant. They don't know where to go and how to understand it. People are fearful about thinking their problems are so severe that they'll be labeled with mental illness. But most of it is adjustment issues."
A great deal of trouble can be averted by a visit with a counselor. Every single NFL team has a relationship with a mental-health professional who is regularly present at team headquarters, according to Dwight Hollier of the NFL department of player engagement. There is also a confidential hotline players can call at any time in the case of a crisis.
Still, the NFL can do more. Not every team has a licensed psychologist on staff, and that's something the league can amend.
"I think it would be very beneficial," says Hunt Jr., who was a counselor for several years at a psychiatric hospital. "That person could address behavior, troubled relationships, and work on life skills."
There will always be the reluctance to trust a team employee with confidential information (especially in light of the release of Josh Freeman's involvement in the NFL's drug program), yet a constant presence at a team's headquarters lowers barriers to communication. Troy Vincent, head of the department of player engagement, touts his "elevator talk," which he uses to gauge players' concerns in a 30-second chat, but it's easier to have the elevator talk when a licensed clinician actually sees players in the elevator. A professional can't (and shouldn't) force a player to talk, but a reminder of his or her availability never hurts. That's what changed the life and career of Tom Brady when he was at Michigan.
The argument about whether the NFL failed in its duties to protect its players will continue. But either way, the NFL still has that duty, and it includes sending the message that it's a long way from Point A (head trauma) to Point B (psychological trauma) and those points don't have to connect. A player who has a history of concussions isn't doomed to misery, and a player who has had no concussions isn't immune from later-life trouble. The life of an NFL player is always stressful – so is the life of his wife and children – and there are proven ways to handle that stress before it gets overwhelming.
The green cleats on Brandon Marshall's feet are a symbol of hope for all players and their families. The uniform infraction doesn't deserve a fine; it deserves the NFL's complete support.
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