Depression in Sports 2011: Seen by Few, Caused by Many

Keshawn DurantContributor IMay 2, 2011

In today’s society, athletes are our modern day gladiators.  We place them on pedestals, spend hours watching and talking about them, and often scrutinize their every move.  In a world of television, Twitter feeds, and TMZ many of us tend to forget that our sports heroes are actually just people: mortal men and women like the rest of us.  This constant pressure from society, coupled with the biological toll sports can take on the human body and mind, are obstacles that these athletes face on a daily basis.  Many of us never see those obstacles, and unfortunately it took a tragedy to occur for many to even realize that they exist.

February’s tragic passing of former NFL standout and successful businessman, Dave Duerson, is an eye opener that shows us that we need to reevaluate the way we look at and think of our sports heroes. 

Duerson, a two-time Superbowl champion and All-pro safety took his own life at the age of 50.  His final request was that his brain be donated to science, and properly analyzed for degenerative disease that he felt was caused by his years spent as a hard hitting defensive back.  He was very active in the NFL alumni association’s push toward increased benefits for retired players who are suffering from C.T.E. (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a condition caused by a history of concussive impacts, and was very aware of its effects on his own mind.  The condition, which is directly linked to depression, is quickly becoming a topic of discussion among doctors and sports physicians everywhere.

The implications of Dave’s story call for an immediate reflection on the realities of what we actually put our society’s athletes through.  Many people see the glory and glamour of competing at a high level, and are quick to dismiss the negative consequences of a life dedicated to sport. 

Mr. Duerson paid for his years of big hits with an early exit from this world.  It might be true that we’ll never know his personal reasons for taking his own life, but to not acknowledge the scientific evidence linking football’s violent nature to a brain condition known to cause depression would be foolish.  The biological damage caused by years of big hits, is playing a serious role in the lives of retired athletes.  The depression caused by these medical conditions is an issue that our society must strive to understand, and take action to help stop.

Beyond the negative physical and biological effects that years of competition can have on professional athletes, the celebrity-obsessed nature of our culture is a serious threat to their mental well-being as well.  It might sound absurd to many, but fame does not come without a price.  With modern technological advances, it’s impossible for someone to maintain privacy, even the average Joe, much less superstar athletes. 

With eyes constantly on these individuals and cell phone cameras never far away, today’s athletes live under constant scrutiny.  Any mistake, no matter how big or small, is only hours from becoming a national headline for many of these young men or women.  While many of us might never have to carry that burden, it’s a frightening concept to think about.

Often times, athletes find themselves with large amounts of both money and fame at an age when most of us are either in college or struggling to find our first jobs.  The amount of responsibility those two factors bring isn’t light, and would be difficult for anyone to handle.  Add in the number of unscrupulous business people constantly approaching and rigorous media demands, and you can start to see the less than desirable side of the life of a professional athlete. 

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a price for success, but to expect individuals who are trying to make the most of their talents and provide for their families to handle these issues without any difficulty is ridiculous.  A life in the public eye isn’t an easy one. 

As we have seen with athletes such as Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, and Lawrence Taylor, being an athlete, no matter how dominant, doesn’t mean that you’re not a human being.  People make mistakes, and are entitled to respect and privacy.  The way our culture handles our superstars obviously ignores that fact.

We need to take the time to think about how our society treats its athletes and ask ourselves if we can create a world where it’s possible for them to live their lives in a normal fashion.  While it’s true that these individuals might be well paid, is money any form of compensation for the loss of some of life’s basic pleasures? 

With the physical toll competition takes on the minds and bodies of athletes, and the way we scrutinize them when they’re off the field, it’s no surprise that many current and retired athletes are battling depression and its effects.  More importantly we need to find a way to embrace the entertainment that sports provide, without encouraging a culture that is so self-destructive. 

Sports have helped bring people together for decades, now we need return the favor and change the way we treat our sports.