Getting Athletes Help

Athletes face complex problems that require specialized experience.

Posted Dec 12, 2012

As a sport psychologist, for years I have been arguing that the transgressions that athletes commit are not directly related to sports. As the severity of these incidents increases, it begs a reexamination. If sports are not to blame, what is? To provide a safe answer like any good psychologist, I could feebly offer, “It depends”. It depends on the situation. It depends on the athlete. It depends on who knows about the problems they are struggling with. It depends on who, if anyone, is assisting them with those problems. It depends…

Make no mistake however, these questions do not provide any excuses. There are no excuses for domestic violence that culminates in a murder-suicide. Regardless of the tragic, sentimental, if not ambivalent, kiss that Kansas City Chief Linebacker Jovan Belcher was alleged to have planted on Kasandra Perkins’ forehead after he killed her and later himself leaving two families destroyed and a little girl orphaned, there is no excuse.

When Dallas Cowboy nose tackle Josh Trent lost control of his car and his friend died while he was charged with intoxicated manslaughter, there is no excuse. The fact his victim was a close friend may make him twice as remorseful, but there is still no excuse.

We collectively shake our head sad, if not angry, knowing that these acts cannot be undone. We cannot look for excuses. There aren’t any. We search for explanations for two reasons. One to help us provide meaning to senseless situations, and the other reason, which we have to do a better job of, is to prevent these events from occurring again in the future.

I have not left my pulpit claiming that these events are not caused by sports. They aren’t. But are there factors of the athletic lifestyle, including the professional male athlete lifestyle that can contribute to these types of acts? Admittedly, the answer is yes.

Professional athletes garnered with all of the adoration of fans, showered with gifts, privileges and perks from the time they are kids for being different and better, narcissism is a natural consequence of such adornment. If you add to that a life full of defeating opponents, the recipe for creating a self-absorbed, immature individual who thinks that they are better than the world is easy to concoct. Of course, for many of those athletes, they are secretly struggling with insecurities (like all of us) that can make them particularly prone to jealousy and risk-taking behavior in an attempt to prove how tough they are…though they’re not really.

And what is the secret formula? What is the antidote to this? Parents who demand accountability for their sons, coaches who teach discipline, sportsmanship, and self-respect and a sport culture that treats them as people. Not a society that deifies young men. Our society created this problem and then asks the athlete themselves or the NFL to solve the problems when the seed is planted much, much earlier in life.

Can professional sports organizations do more? Of course. But that is a misleading answer. All organizations can do more. We can always improve. When these types of high profile incidents happen, it is difficult for organizations to self-examine because so many people become Monday morning quarterbacks saying this should have been prevented. In some cases, is this true? Probably. In order to understand these “critical incidents”, many systems do what is called a “root cause analysis” or in the mental health field, we sometimes call them psychological autopsies. There is a risk that these become finger-pointing episodes to avoid being sued, but the real goal is to understand the factors that contributed to the incident and determine if there was something that was missed, factors that could have been addressed. Tragedies become amplified if the systems that were in place are not improved to prevent reoccurrence. For the NFL and all sports leagues, this SHOULD happen behind closed doors. This is not something that should be handled in the media; regardless of how our society salivates over scandalous “must-see TV”. Pro sports leagues have to improve on this, but they have been working on it for years…though the everyday public doesn’t know much about it.

To add to an already complicated picture, many “sport psychologists” that counsel athletes (including at the pro level) are not licensed psychologists. This has been something that athletes and sport organizations have not been adequately educated about; and certainly neither the public nor the media have either. Not all sport psychologists have the same training. And further, even of those that are actually licensed psychologists, experience assessing suicide and/or homicide, understanding domestic violence, trauma and abuse, substance abuse and anger/rage are subspecialties that many don’t have. Worse, even with the training and experience, you don’t always get it right because of what your client does or doesn’t share with you. But, with that said, it is important to understand that athletes are absolutely not immune to emotional struggles because of their status. They may be at greater risk because the outsider wishes they had their life. They deal with pressures to perform. They deal with paranoia that people are trying to use them for their money. They deal with the media jamming a microphone in their face after their worst performance. Some self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to feel better. They struggle with injuries. They worry that their partner may be out with someone else when they are on the road (even if they hypocritically are doing the same). The point I am making is that the life of an athlete, especially a pro, is very complex with risk factors that the outside world doesn’t consider.

Are the concussions leading to more violence? Maybe. It is much more likely however that for some individuals that are already prone to emotional lability, the damage to their brains is a contributing factor in their behavior. There are many concussed athletes that do not become violent and/or suicidal. But because it is a contributory factor, it needs to be addressed.

Is it steroids? Again, steroids contribute to violent tendencies, but, except in the rarest of cases, do not cause violence by themselves. What about alcohol? Is it a problem? Absolutely, for the athlete that drinks for free at the bar and the fans in the stands who act like idiots when inebriated. But all of these issues contribute to the problem, sometimes synergistically, but none of them alone is the cause. Ultimately, the athlete is responsible for their behavior. Teams and organizations that work with them have an affirmative responsibility to address the many complex factors that may contribute to their volatility, but this is an uphill battle. Athletes do not get involved in these incidents more often than non-athletes, not statistically. But when they do…we will all know about it.

Further, considering the billions of dollars that professional sports bring in, and the millions that the athletes make, anyone who doesn’t hire a car service for every time they MAY have an adult beverage, is just needlessly gambling…and it is a gamble that can needlessly cost them their lives…not to mention any other person that winds up being an unintended victim. Further, many pro sports teams hire “no questions asked” car service for their players that don’t get utilized enough. For some players, they’ve worked so hard to get their dream ride, they don’t want anyone else driving it. For others, they are too proud to say they can’t drive, can’t handle the situation. It is part of the myth of invincibility that contributes to their doing near-impossible acts on the field. But that is why it cannot and should not be left for the player to decide. Someone else needs to do this because expecting/demanding that the athlete has the maturity and clarity to make this decision is not realistic. Let us be truthful in reminding ourselves that many seemingly more mature people are driving while intoxicated all too often.

Finally, Chris Mortenson reported on ESPN today that due to the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, that Major League Baseball is looking to “share information and use FBI behavioral analysis in an effort to compile a better profile of a player or former player in trouble.” It is a nice idea, but the answer is really making sure that those working with the athletes know how to identify when someone is spiraling out of control. This is needed centrally by the professional sport leagues as well as at the individual club level, from where most of the counseling services are arranged. We see these tragedies in our society all-too-often. They will continue to exist and grow in the sports world, if we do not do more…and that starts when the athletes are kids, when interventions have the best chance to have a lasting impact.