When a quarterback takes a sack, there’s a pretty clear decision tree that comes into play. Are any bones broken? If so, bring out a cart. Are any muscles sprained, or is there a concussion possibility? If so, send the QB to the sideline. Is the QB just sore from getting knocked down by a charging 300-pounder? Stand up, brush off and head back to the huddle.
But what about when a quarterback’s head isn’t right? What if a quarterback is stressed, anxious, depressed or worse? There’s no easy diagnosis the way there is for, say, a broken bone. Moreover, there’s a longstanding stigma attached to mental health challenges — toughen up, quit bitching, act like a man — that keeps players from reporting, or even recognizing, the severity of symptoms of mental health concerns.
As America comes out of the pandemic and begins to reckon with the long-term trauma of a once-in-a-lifetime event, both the medical profession and society as a whole are recognizing the need for mental health awareness and treatment. There’s a growing realization that admitting to mental health concerns isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength.
Carson Wentz, newly minted quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, spoke recently on the topic of mental health with openness and honesty.
“People are realizing that it’s OK to not be OK, and to talk about it,” Wentz told Beth Hoole of Valley News Live in North Dakota. “Everyone’s got somebody in their life, whether it’s a counselor, teammate, friend, brother, wife, pastor, whatever that is, and if they don’t have that hopefully they can find that.”
Wentz faced both on-field challenges and off-field criticism while leading the Philadelphia Eagles. He wasn’t in uniform for the team’s Super Bowl victory, but took the heat for the team’s subsequent decline.
“I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life when things are going south or I’m struggling, to have an honest conversation, to refocus and reframe my mindset,” he said. “I think that’s so important for everybody, but especially in the NFL with all the pressures and all the things that get thrown at us, it’s definitely been acceptable.
“It’s encouraging for people to see that, you know, us big strong football players can be vulnerable,” he added, “can be real people that go through real stuff and that it’s OK to say ‘I’m struggling.’”
Wentz’s erstwhile division rival Dak Prescott talked obliquely about mental health in June while recounting his journey back from the injury that ended his season last year.
“I’ve buried the injury, honestly, guys — you know me — from the point of practice, from the point of just moving forward and going about my life,” Prescott said. “I’ve buried it mentally, and I think you guys and a lot of people around have to help me in burying it as well as we move forward.”
The implication there is that Prescott is aware of the role of mental health in governing physical recovery, and that he believes the media has a role in not undercutting players’ mental health efforts.
The NFL has had mental health assistance programs in place since 2012 with its “Total Wellness” initiative. In recent years, the league has tried to reduce the stigma around mental health, normalizing rather than dismissing concerns. The NFL also maintains a 24-hour lifeline for players in immediate crisis.
The increase in mental health awareness is a welcome one, and the more that notable players like Wentz and Prescott keep it at a high profile, the less it remains stigmatized.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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