The following piece originally ran on DBB on May 19, 2014. Two years later the NFL is finally allowing players to showcase their personal causes on the field. It’s probably the best thing ever published in this space, non-game related.
Josh Marks liked to cook. He was good enough at cooking and handsome enough to land a spot on the television program MasterChef. He finished second. At twenty-six years old and with a seemingly limitless future before him, Marks took his own life Friday. In a CNN article Marks’ family recount the young man’s struggles with mental health issues, with the family lawyer going so far as to say “It is overwhelming to think that with proper, intensive treatment, Joshua may still be with us.”
He was found dead by his mother in an alleyway on Chicago’s south side.
The reason an overwhelming majority of individuals in this country do not seek treatment for a mental disorder is simple: they don’t understand they suffer from one. The common conversation allows depression – as a term – to be wrongly attached to extraneous social circumstances.
I’m depressed because my dog died.
I’m depressed because they’re thinking of changing the Redskins’ name.
This incorrect label is applied because the brain is far more difficult to understand than any other organ in the body. We know what causes heart and liver damage. We know what a human being should do to preserve kidney function. The brain is far too complicated to be understood by those without an MD. So we apply normal human rationale to our brain function. I feel this way because of this thing that happened. Here is what the American Psychiatric Association says on this very issue:
How Depression and Sadness Are Different
The death of a loved one, loss of a job, or the ending of a relationship are difficult experiences for a person to endure. It is normal for feelings of sadness or grief to develop in response to such stressful situations. Those experiencing trying times often might describe themselves as being “depressed.” But sadness and depression are not the same. While feelings of sadness will lessen with time, the disorder of depression can continue for months, even years. Patients who have experienced depression note marked differences between normal sadness and the disabling weight of clinical depression.
Abnormalities in two chemicals in the brain, serotonin and norepinephrine, might contribute to symptoms of depression, including anxiety, irritability and fatigue. Other brain networks undoubtedly are involved as well; scientists are actively seeking new knowledge in this area.
Brandon Marshall does not suffer from depression. What he suffers from is a far more serious disorder called borderline personality disorder or BPD. The APA defines it as such:
Borderline personality disorder is the most common personality disorder in clinical settings, and it is present in cultures around the world. However, this disorder is often incorrectly diagnosed or underdiagnosed in clinical practice. Borderline personality disorder causes marked distress and impairment in social, occupational, and role functioning, and it is associated with high rates of self-destructive behavior (e.g., suicide attempts) and completed suicide.
The essential feature of borderline personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, affects, and self-image, as well as marked impulsivity.
(That is only a sound bite. CLICK HERE to learn just how extensive and impacting this disease can be.) The Chicago Reader’s Steve Bogira, in his piece on the Brandon Marshall fine, pointed to an illuminating article in the New York Times. It is the story of a Dr. Marsha Linehan – a leading expert in the field of mental illness who discovered after years of treating others that she herself was struggling with the disease:
…Dr. Linehan’s case shows there is no recipe. She was driven by a mission to rescue people who are chronically suicidal, often as a result of borderline personality disorder, an enigmatic condition characterized in part by self-destructive urges.
“I honestly didn’t realize at the time that I was dealing with myself,” she said. “But I suppose it’s true that I developed a therapy that provides the things I needed for so many years and never got.”
This is a doctor. This is a woman who spent her life dealing with the illness in others. And here she was, unaware the disease was deeply rooted in her own brain. Why would we be surprised when the teenage boy or girl in Albuquerque, New Mexico is unable to self-diagnose the issue? From that same article:
“There’s a tremendous need to implode the myths of mental illness, to put a face on it, to show people that a diagnosis does not have to lead to a painful and oblique life,” said Elyn R. Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Law who chronicles her own struggles with schizophrenia in “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.” “We who struggle with these disorders can lead full, happy, productive lives, if we have the right resources.”
To put a face on it. Isn’t that what Brandon Marshall has tried so hard to do since his brilliant introductory press conference in Chicago? Isn’t showing “a diagnosis does not have to lead to a painful and oblique life” exactly what Marshall achieves with every catch, every touchdown, every post-game sit down with the NFL Network crew that has the anchors in awe of not only the player but the man? (Kurt Warner Tweeted: “Thanks for the hospitality CHICAGO! Great atmosphere & performance tonight! Really impressed w/ Brandon Marshall, more off field than on!”)
Roger Goodell does not think so and this headline from NESN sums it up brilliantly:
Report: Brandon Marshall to Be Fined $5,250 for Wearing Green Shoes in Support of Mental Health Awareness
What is a fine in the NFL? Why are they imposed on players? I’ll let the NFL define their own policy:
The Commissioner may impose fines and other appropriate discipline, up to and including suspension or banishment from the League, for certain misconduct on the playing field, as well as for conduct detrimental to the integrity of or public confidence in the NFL or the game of professional football. Discipline involving unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct on the playing field with respect to opposing players will be determined initially by a person appointed by the Commissioner.
This not a semantic argument. The NFL is stating very clearly by assessing Brandon Marshall a $5,250 penalty that he has conducted himself poorly on the playing field or committed an act detrimental to the integrity of the NFL. By wearing a pair of green cleats to raise awareness for a collection of illnesses that NEED awareness, that are DESPERATE for awareness, Marshall has done wrong. That is the statement being made by Roger Goodell.
NFL & “CHARITY”
First, shame on the NFL. Just because the league managed to swindle thousands of players by settling their concussion litigation does not mean the concussion/brain trauma debate has been gently swept under the rug. Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau…etc. are all dead today because of brain defects caused by their brains slamming up against their skulls, hit after hit, throughout their NFL careers.
What if the word concussion did not exist? What if the NFL was forced to label the injuries sustained in football games as what they are: traumatic brain injuries. Would there be traumatic brain injury-related symptoms? Would they put traumatic brain injury in parentheses like hip or ankle?
Limited: Matthew Stafford (Traumatic Brain Injury)
By not fining Marshall the NFL would be embracing Brandon Marshall’s commitment to mental health awareness and making a signature exception to a silly rule. Roger Goodell should release a statement embracing the brain issues being faced by both current and former players and pointing to Marshall as an ambassador. Goodell thinks he represents the NFL. If he did, the sport would crumble under the weight of its own bullshit. Marshall is the shield. Marshall is the NFL. And in the history of the sport’s “dealing” with mental illness he is the league’s greatest asset and most impressive contribution.
I will tell you this. With the singular gesture of wearing those cleats, Marshall started more conversations about mental health than all the pink towels in all those games started about breast cancer.
Second, let’s take a closer look at the NFL’s breast cancer awareness campaign.
The Pink campaign is nothing more than a continuation of the league’s concerted effort to increase viewership among women. (To read about those efforts from a merchandising perspective, CLICK THIS ESPN W ARTICLE.) Breast cancer is a terrible disease and one hopes every day to see it and all cancers eradicated. But why is it given priority in a sports league over, say, prostate cancer – an illness plaguing males across the country? As with everything NFL-related these days, follow the money.
Sticking idiotic pink flags in the pockets of officials is a symbolic gesture towards a problem that requires tangible action. Or as my friend Chael brilliantly IM’d me, “Write a check, help solve it, be known that way. Being a pink league is like dressing up your illiterate 5 year old. Sure, she looks pretty, but she could probably use a fucking book instead.”
Not only is this something of a hollow gesture by the league but its a misguided use of funds. Their Pink campaign is aligned with the American Cancer Society, one of the more notorious and uselessly bureaucratic organizations in the wellness world of charitable organizations. From an article in the Harvard Crimson:
At one time, the American Cancer Society spent only 26 percent of its national multibillion-dollar budget on actual medical research, allotting the other three-fourths to “operating expenses.” In 2005, the Phoenix New Times reported that the Arizona branch of the organization spent a gasp-inducing 95 percent on overhead costs, leaving cancer victims “only the crumbs.” At the Arizona branch, the nonprofit spends 22 times as much on paying employees, maintaining the offices, and keeping the coffee machine running than on the cancer victims they are supposedly aiming to save.
For those who’d argue the NFL does not want to simply cut a check to researchers and scientists, I would argue they look to history. NFL does just that when they are trying to save their own hide. From USA Today:
In May 2009, Ann McKee made a presentation before the MTBI committee at NFL headquarters in New York. A professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University and co-director of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopath, McKee told Frontline the committee was not receptive.
“They were convinced it was wrong, and I felt that they were in a very serious state of denial,” she said.
Denial had nothing to do with it. Roger Goodell sat in front of Congress on October 28th 2009 and looked every bit as guilty as the tobacco boys had years earlier. Six months later the NFL cuts a check to the same Boston University researchers they’d publicly admonished.
Chris Nowinski described the gift in the Frontline documentary based on League of Denial:
The NFL’s gift of a million dollars is an interesting story, because we never asked for money from the NFL. We had asked them to help us acquire brains for the brain bank and get guys to participate in research. But we knew money would always be an issue because it could be seen as being bought off or some sort of conflict.
So it was especially interesting the way we found out about it, because the timing was such that it was — we found out on a Sunday morning, and on Monday morning, a press release had been finalized the previous Friday announcing a partnership with the NFL Players Association. The NFL Players Association was going to be helping — supporting our research, helping us get brains from players for study, etc.
And then Sunday morning I got a call from the Associated Press at 10 in the morning saying, “How do you feel about the NFL giving you a million dollars?” The answer was: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This doesn’t sound right at all.”
So I called around to the other co-directors, Dr. McKee, Dr. Cantu, Dr. Stern. No one had had a conversation directly with the NFL about this. So we issued a statement saying, “We’ll consider the gift, and it’s very nice of them to offer,” and eventually decided that working with the medical school, that they thought if it was given as a gift, an unrestricted gift, it was appropriate.
You see? They gave a million bucks! Of course they’re concerned with concussions! It had nothing to do with Congressional hearing or pending litigation. Kindness. It was all kindness and compassion.
If breast or any other cancer is going to be eradicated in this country it is because scientists are properly funded to do the work required to beat the disease. The NFL would do better to spend $100 million, build a lab and hire the best doctors in the field. Instead they insist on paying the overhead costs for the American Cancer Society with pink towels around the waists of the Houston Texans.
WHERE FROM HERE?
Earl Bennett wore orange cleats for luck or something. Jim McMahon wore Adidas across his headband for money and Rozelle on that same headband the following week to stick it to the NFL commissioner.
Brandon Marshall wore green cleats to raise mental health awareness. If his actions forced one kid to Google “borderline personality disorder” shouldn’t be celebrated? If his cleat color of green – chosen because the color is meant to symbolize hope – helps one Josh Marks to understand he is not “crazy”, that he can find assistance, that his cause is not lost, shouldn’t we be heaping praise onto him instead of five grand fines?
A BuzzFeed article by Kristin Chirico summed it up with a subtitle: Brandon Marshall is the best thing to ever happen to Borderline Personality Disorder.
At a time when the NFL is coming under intense media criticism for covering up brain damage to their players, couldn’t an argument be made that Brandon Marshall is the best thing to happen to the NFL in 2013? Leave it to the league to treat a prize like a pariah.