Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Paper Gladiators

"Because of his personality, because of who he is, nobody would have ever believed he would have done it."

Those were the words of a close friend of Kenny McKinley, a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, who was found dead last Monday at his home just miles from the Broncos training facility. Two female friends who were taking care of his son discovered McKinley's body Monday and called 911. Detectives who responded to his home a few miles from the Broncos headquarters found McKinley's body with a pillow over his head and a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol on top of the pillow. They also noted a strong odor of freshly burned marijuana, according to the report. Arapahoe County Coroner Michael Dobersen said Tuesday that McKinley died of a gunshot wound to the head. He said a preliminary investigation "suggests the wound to be self-inflicted."

McKinley, who was a standout player at the University of South Carolina, was selected by the Denver Broncos in the 5th round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He played eight games in 2009 as a kick returner. He returned 7 kicks for a total of 158 yards. He also recorded 3 special teams tackles. McKinley was placed on injured reserve December 28th, 2009 following knee surgery, ending his season. Teammates reported that, shortly after the surgery on his knee, McKinley made statements about not knowing what he would so without football. While playing dominoes in the Broncos locker room, McKinley reportedly told a teammate that he should "just kill himself". "No one believed he was serious", an officer investigating the case reported.

"If it had been said to me, I probably would have been like, 'Yeah, whatever, Kenny.' It would have completely gone over my head," a close friend of McKinley said. "That's not the type of thing he would say and if he did say it, that's not the type of thing that you would take seriously coming from him." McKinley's teammates and coaches seemed to agree that the possibility of him taking his own life seemed impossible to anyone who knew McKinley for even a short time. "I actually saw Kenny a week and a half ago. He was over here picking up some stuff out of his locker," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "He was always a guy that used to love to joke with me and I would joke back and forth with him. But he had a big smile on his face. He just walked out of the building." Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said in a tearful news conference last Tuesday that nobody with the Broncos sensed any warning signs from McKinley about his state of mind. "We've all seen him recently. He's been the same person every time we see him. Liked junk food and chips and things like that," McDaniels said. "He was in the cafeteria, or in the training room, when we were seeing him the last so many weeks here. Nothing that would alarm us to anything like this."

A close friend of McKinley reported that, over the last month, he was having a hard time with not being able to play football or being around his teammates every day but it didn't appear as if he was struggling to the point of harming himself. No one knew that McKinley owned a gun. Woodyard said despite what it might look like to fans, NFL players have lots of pressures in their lives even though they're living the dream. "Well, you know, football's a stressful job," he said, adding that players have to reach out for help. "It's the same thing with people in everyday life, you've got to talk to somebody in your life, so just to help you work out those problems."

People who are dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts aren't always outwardly despondent, said Dr. Michael Allen, director of research at the University of Colorado Denver Depression Center. He said suicidal individuals don't always reach out for help, even to those closest to them. In a 1994 article entitled "Injured Athletes and the Risk of Suicide", Aynsley M. Smith, a nurse counselor at the Sports Medicine Center of the Mayo Clinic and Eric K. Milliner, a consultant at the Section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic explained that research on the emotional responses of athletes to injury shows significant depression that may last a month of more, paralleling the athlete's concept of if and how they will recover. Injured athletes cared for by athletic trainers are often between the ages of 15 to 24 (McKinley was 23), the high-risk age group for suicide, which is currently a leading cause of death for young Americans.

Smith and Milliner went on to state that the more seriously injured athletes in their study experienced significant elevations in depression, anger, tension, and decreased vigor compared to their peers. The researchers found significant pre-injury and post-injury differences in the moods of the athletes, suggesting that the way athletes feel post injury is likely attributable to the injury and not to a pre-existing mental disorder or altered mood. "Clearly, during times of injury when athletes have lost their ability to achieve in sport, post-injury depression may place them at an added risk for suicide, particularly if other risk factors are present." NFL players go through rigorous psychological evaluations prior to being drafted and there appeared to be no pre-existing warning signs that McKinley would harm himself. All of McKinley friends, teammates, and coaches described him as a generally happy guy but, as Dr. Michael Allen states, this can be a front for something stewing behind the amiable front. "For many people in the mild to moderate range you wouldn't know they're depressed. They're able to put up a good front of joviality."

Reaching out for help can be difficult for those in the military and in sports. "In any group of men where toughness is valued, talking about anything that may be viewed as weakness goes against the grain," Allen said. Case and point - Ricky Williams. The Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Texas and current star running back for the NFL's Miami Dolphins has been the poster boy for athletes struggling silently with debilitating mental disorders. Williams, who eventually self diagnosed himself with social anxiety disorder, was often maligned for his weird behavior towards teammates and coaches and his many run-ins with NFL disciplinarians for repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Williams recalls a time when he was with the New Orleans Saints and went on the disabled list for a broken ankle. The team treated his recovery as a matter of vital importance. Trainers and rehab specialists oversaw his every move and asked for near-daily updates on his condition. Teammates texted him daily. Williams was struck by the contrast. "There's a physical prejudice in sports," he says. "When it's a broken bone, the teams will do everything in their power to make sure it's OK. When it's a broken soul, it's like a weakness." Depression and other mental illnesses are often stigmatized as maladies for the weak in sports. "Gutless" was the term Bobby Valentine, then the Mets manager, allegedly used to describe Pete Harnisch after the pitcher suffered a depressive episode. "Run it off," an NBA coach once told Vin Baker when the player tried to explain his depression. "Don't let the blues get you down!"

Rob Lunn of, in a recent article, asked the million dollar question: With the millions of dollars spent by college and professional football programs, where are the mental health resources for athletes? "With all the millions of dollars spent by college football programs, and athletics in general, there are zero dollars allocated to mental health. It is a mentality of "your body is ours, your mind is yours," and it is a dangerous mantra to live by..." Lunn goes on to say, "If a player goes down with an ACL tear, a broken bone, a pulled muscle or even a minor sprain, it is met with the full onslaught of a college or university’s sports medicine budget. Millions of dollars go toward weight rooms, doctors, training staffs, rehab pools, ultrasound, [and] vibromassage. It’s all state of the art, all designed to get athletes back to playing shape after an injury. Yet there is no institution in place to help players cope with the stress of major...athletics"

In a recent article in Psychology Today Elana Premack Sandler, a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion, talked about the need for mental health care that parallels the physical care that athletes receive from their trainers. She called on collegiate and professional athletic programs to create a system similar to that of Major League Baseball, which allows players to go on a "mental disabled list" when they are battling non-physical maladies. National League MVP candidate Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and 2009 American League CY Young Award Winner Zack Greinke are two recent success stories of MLB's "mental DL". "A lesson, both for college and pro football and for all of us, is that even people who appear happy, who have a lot going their way, may be struggling. To me, these deaths reinforce the importance of how we listen, that we believe people when they talk about suicide, and that we do the things within our power (like removing guns or other dangerous items from a home) to decrease the chances that someone will die by suicide."

The unfortunate and untimely death of Kenny McKinley once again brings the stereotypes that our society holds about athletes and those with mental disorders to the forefront of the public consciousness. As Rob Lunn states in his article, "the tough guy attitude in sports is one of infallibility -- if it breaks, we'll fix it." However, unlike a bone, muscle or, in the case of Kenny McKinley, a knee, there is no quick fix for mental pain and anguish. That sort of pain requires an in depth analysis of one's thinking process, which calls on the athlete to come face-to-face with their own weakness and infallibility, an action that flies opposite of everything that athletes have been coached to be. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly a quarter of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. By necessity, issues surrounding mental health have become better understood and accepted in the mainstream and the stigma attached to athletes with psychological issues is beginning to lose some of its adhesiveness. In recent years welters of athletes such as Jennifer Capriati, Joey Votto, Stephane Richerin and Zach Greinke in a variety of sports have unashamedly admitted to battling mental illness. It was the inimitable Ron Artest, of half-time cognac drinking, jumping into the stands and beating up patrons fame who, during his memorable monologue after winning his first NBA championship, expressed profuse thanks to his psychiatrist.

But, for every success story there are a thousand Kenny McKinley's suffering anonymously and feeling like the only way out of their despair is in the chamber of a loaded hand gun. We can't hope to prevent every athlete from taking his/her life but we can provide them with the resources and care that they deserve for their extraordinary efforts on and off the field of play. Let's start by mandating professional mental healthcare for collegiate athletes, who are often under similar stresses as their professional counterparts. In addition to access to therapy and medication, let's also encourage social stability and a solid home life for our athletes. There are a lot of perks associated with being an amateur or professional athlete but social stability does not rank high on the list. From road games to homework to the possibility of being traded or injured to an all-consuming high stakes regular season and post-season to the dissonance that occurs when young men and women come into vast sums of money seemingly overnight, sports are hardly conducive to social stability.

Most importantly, let's change how we as consumers view our collegiate and professional athletes. They aren't gladiators in the arena mauling each other for our sadistic consumption. Athletes aren't points in our fantasy football leagues or an extension of the affections we have for our alma mater (or, conversely, disdain for another school). They aren't infallible, indestructible, unfeeling, or disposable robots. They are human beings just like us and are subject to the same mental and physical struggles that make living life such a precarious daily ordeal; that makes life so precious.

So, the next time you call an athlete "soft" for sitting out a game due to depression, upbraid a friend for being down on him/herself during a difficult time, or shrug off feelings of self-hatred as temporary doldrums, think about Kenny McKinley, his family, friends, coaches, teammates and his now fatherless child. If you won't assist a friend in need of professional help or seek support for your own battles for yourself, do it for Kenny's young son. There's someone out there who cares for you that will be eternally grateful that you did.

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