NATHANIEL BEACH, Sports Editor—To say the National Football League (NFL) is evolving into something new is an understatement.
A historically strict league has now started to see signs of players taking a step up for themselves and take control of their own careers, instead of the owners of the teams they play for. While injuries are nothing new in professional sports, the toll the sport has had on mental health of players is something that has been overlooked until recently with more and more players taking a stand for their individuality.
With this past summer’s startling retirement of Indianapolis Colts’ franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, player health has come even more into the spotlight. In his press conference announcing his retirement, Luck explained the constant toll his injuries throughout the years have put on him, both physically and mentally. New England Patriots’ legendary tight end Rob Gronkowski similarly spoke out about the toll the sport has on mental health within players.
Research has started to be conducted on mental health issues within the NFL, and while interviewing players, researchers started to realize the impact professional football has had on players. Discussing his time in professional football, one player said, “The reason it’s so lonely is we put those walls up…and nobody can know that I’m feeling concerned about my performance, that I’m insecure about this or that because football, in a sense, is [the] ultimate meritocracy and such a manly thing that you just you always feel like you gotta be on, you know?”
Another player, reflecting on the trauma of ending his career, said, “I really believe it’s more of an emotional issue of losing your identity and some of those other things that can cause emotional trauma, more than what’s happening physically.”
The impact mental health has on these athletes has led to an almost revolution within the NFL, with players taking more control of their careers than the team owners who have had the influence since the beginning of the league.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’veon Bell is a prime example of this new phenomenon taking place within the league. Bell decided to sit out an entire season without pay from the Steelers, as a result of not being paid enough money for what he feels he is worth. This is because running backs are often paid less than other star players and have smaller contracts. Running backs are seen to be much more “disposable” for a team as a result of low carer life-span for the position. Bell averaged 351 total touches (279 carries and 72 receptions) over his four full seasons with Pittsburgh between 2013-2017. Leading up to his holdout, he echoed the sentiment that he wasn’t paid what he believed to be fair compensation for the physical toll the Steelers put on his body. As a result, he has signed with the New York Jets for a massive contract worth $52.5 million over four years, including $27 million guaranteed.
This has led to other players threatening to sit out of the league as well, including Cowboy’s star Ezekiel Elliot, who threatened to sit out the season if he wasn’t paid by the Cowboys. This is a change, with players taking a more active stance in their payment, knowing the toll they put on their bodies every season. It has become especially prevalent with star running backs such as Bell and Elliot.
The new health epidemic the NFL has been dealing with is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a disease caused by numerous head injuries that leads to many psychological issues. Through research, an extraordinary high number of former NFL players are now suffering from CTE. One of the main symptoms is depression. For a league that requires so much from players, their physical health is at risk and the players are finally starting to fight back for their health.
The NFL has historically been viewed as a corporation that views its players as being more of a tradable good than the living, working professionals they really are. Players today are trying to change that.
Players are speaking out more. The NFL has developed programs for players to help with their mental health, and people are noticing. If the NFL wants to survive and allow for players to continue to play the sport they love, with less burden on their psychological well-being, it must listen to the players.
Former Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin made headlines recently for an interview he gave in which he explained how he smoked marijuana before every game he ever played in to calm his nerves and help him play. This is obviously against league protocol, yet players are doing it anyways because they see no other options. The NFL has yet to do anything to help players with their mental health so players took to breaking the rules to do what the NFL refused to do.
Mental health is an underlooked issue, that may also just be the most dangerous issue of professional sports. The NFL better take notice of what the players are saying and feeling, because otherwise the league will see its end and more and more players will suffer as a result of negligence.