Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Should Professional Athletes Be Mentally Evaluated?

When I first heard news of the Jovan Belcher incident (before the reports that he had taken the life of his child's mother), one of my initial reactions was, "maybe he wasn't mentally functional." Since learning the details, I believe it's safe to assume that perhaps that wasn't the case, but I brought up something that I wanted people to consider. Professional athletes should have regular, mandatory mental evaluations.

This could be applied to any profession. People need to be properly diagnosed for any number of issues, stress and familial included. But athletes, I believe, could be at a higher risk for doing things the average citizen may not do.

That's not to say that I believe every professional athlete is a murderer. Far from it. But perhaps evaluations could have prevented deceased Bengals' WR Chris Henry from making a decision to put himself into a situation that ultimately cost him his life. Maybe Plaxico Burress doesn't carry a handgun to a club and end up in prison, embarrassingly. Or we don't even have a Michael Vick, dog-fighting, drug-funding, suspension & prison stint.

I believe that all professional athletes should be evaluated by both a psychologist, and a psychiatrist. During the season, it should be a weekly process (at least in the NFL with concussions and constant, violent contact), and during the offseason, perhaps monthly near home. These are guys who rely on raw emotion and often block out their typical mental functions to focus on a physical act. We still don't know what kind of damage adrenaline can do to the body or the organs (the brain in particular), and what the kind of physical stress athletes put themselves through ultimately do to their mindstate. I also don't want to just color this image of violence, rage, and aggression. Depression could also be a major risk (as we've learned from the countless suffering from brain trauma due to concussions).

If players want an example of what seeing specialists can do for their lives, look no further than current Chicago Bears WR Brandon Marshall, who suffers from borderline personality disorder (BDP). Marshall confessed to having no idea why all of the perfect things he had in his life meant so little to him, and all of the sad, unfortunate instances of domestic abuse and personal demons were really burying the talented young man. But he finally saw a psychologist, and Marshall believes it saved his life.

Perhaps some athletes could learn to become better teammates and more self-controlling. Perhaps they find ways to cope with the effects of being released or traded by a team. Maybe they find out they can be better family-oriented people. Or maybe they learn to be wiser with their time and money.

Every year at the NFL Rookie Symposium, a speech is given trying to tell these young men that they need to be careful who they hang out with, where they hang out with, who they buy a home from, who they let manage their money, how they personally manage their money. But being a member of a large group of guys and hearing that talk can cause you to brush it off. You may feel invincible (especially as an athlete) or as though they're talking to someone else in the room because you've never had those problems and some of these other rookies were notorious for it in college. Then you make a mistake, and another.

Look at embattled veteran and future Hall of Famer, Terrell Owens. His financial troubles were a major storyline this NFL offseason. Look at Allen Iverson, who spends more money weekly than he makes. Look at Michael Jordan and the gambling issues that contributed to many downfalls in his personal life. Look at Dallas Cowboys' OT Tyron Smith, who has had to get a protective order against his parents and siblings because they harassed him over their own desire for financial gain.

These are guys who could have been tremendous role models for any child, until it came to money. Not all financial problems are self-imposed, but a lot are. A lot of athletes come from broken homes with very little family income. When they get that first paycheck, many of them don't know what to do with it. Some of them want all the things they never had when growing up. Many of them trust the first investor they come across. Maybe an evaluation can help them control their financial urges and do the wise thing.

Mental evaluations aren't concrete, nor would they be the end-all of problems that athletes face. Many problems exist outside of an athlete's control, as they do in any walk of life, and are often magnified for an athlete because of their celebrity status; but evaluating these men (and women) could lead to huge improvements in their life, their mind, their pockets, their marriage/relationship, and their career. All commissioners and club owners in professional sports need to take it upon themselves to get their athletes the best evaluations possible to enhance the quality of their life. They owe it to the athletes.

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