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A short time ago, Herschel Walker admitted to the public that he dealt with Dissociative Identity Disorder. It was so bad that he even played Russian roulette at one point, and luckily came out alive. In 2002 he was diagnosed with the disorder and began treatment and eventually conquered it, but not after having lost his wife. He’s not alone, though, when it comes to famous athletes with disorders. Ted Johnson suffered from depression after post-concussion syndrome. Zack Greinke suffered from social anxiety disorder. Barret Robbins had Bipolar disorder. And that’s just the beginning of the list.
For the most part, as fans, we look at athletes based on their physical stature and the numbers that they produce while playing. We cheer them on when they do well and sometimes boo them when they don’t perform well. We may taunt them or make up some catchphrase involving their name or nickname. However, what we forget is that there is more to an athlete than just that. After all, an athlete is just doing their job, and they too are just trying to make a living, and their profession just happens to be what they do well. They too must deal with the same issues many of us deal with.
Greinke is a great example of this. Long hyped as a great pitcher, he debuted in 2004 with a very successful season and elicited comparisons to Greg Maddux. In 2005, however, he struggled and ended up taking 2006 off from baseball because he was not enjoying the game anymore. In the book Social Phobia, Richard G. Heimberg describes social phobia as creating a fear of being judged by others and a person being potentially embarrassed or humiliated by their own actions. In Greinke’s case the pressures of the expectations he created prevented him from being able to perform up to those levels.
Ted Johnson, on the other hand, deals with depression from multiple concussions. He suffered a concussion in a 2002 preseason game against the New York Giants. Four days later in practice he suffered a second concussion. From there on out, for the rest of his career as a football player, he suffered multiple concussions of multiple severities, though often undiagnosed. In this New York Times article Johnson talks about fearing the loss of his job as the reason he played on through the concussions and even took Adderall to try and help with his loss of focus from the concussions. Instead, he may have made his situation worse and has not even been able to live a normal life or have a post-football career.
When we look at Barret Robbins, there is a family history of alcoholism that did not help in dealing with the manic depression. In addition, his wife admits that Robbins cycled steroids to put on bulk. Experts on bipolar disorder have noted that drug abuse makes the disease harder to treat and makes the condition worse, as is noted in a USA Today article about Robbins. Instead of his teammates or coaches noticing his situation and trying to get him straightened out, he was allowed to play on and sink himself further until he was in dire need of help.
What’s clear in all of this is that diagnosis by a team and preventative measures are the best way to handle the matter. As a former wrestling fan, I can’t help but think of Chris Benoit and how the combination of steroids and brain damage led to his erratic behavior, including last year’s shocking double-murder suicide. Teams need to be proactive about these issues with their players or risk public scrutiny. Yes, sports have evolved into money-making businesses, but a negative perception of the treatment of employees will cut off potential future growth for the business. If nothing is done, I sincerely hope that this is an issue that Congress begins to push the leagues on. Allowing or forcing players to play through disorders should not be given a free pass.