By On November 7th, 2013

Brain Injury Incognito: Another Lesson in Silent Epidemics from the NFL


Here we are just past the halfway point of the 2013 National Football League (NFL) season, and with it comes another lesson in “Silent Epidemics”.  This time though, through the unfolding story of Jonathan Martin’s struggles as a player for the Miami Dolphins.  With the recent behavior of Richie Incognito, the latest issues in the NFL takes on the complexities of bullying, mental health, and the impact of socialization and isolation on those living with invisible wounds.  Martin, a 300 pound plus offensive lineman, disproves the myth that when it comes to bullying size matters.   He stepped away from the NFL due to reported extreme harassment from teammate Richie Incognito.

As the story of Martin’s decision to report Incognito’s behavior unfolded Martin was both vilified and admired in the press for his actions.  At the same time, there were mixed messages regarding Incognito. Some reports surfaced recognizing him as a positive influence for the Miami Dolphin organization.  Other information surfaced that Incognito had extreme behavioral health problems throughout his football career, dating back to his college days.  Stories of anger management issues on and off the field surfaced.  News reports indicated that he had been kicked out of two college football programs due to aggressive behavioral problems. Within days Richie Incognito was swiftly judged and lost his livelihood.  Let me be clear here, there should be accountability for this type of behavior.  The NFL and Miami Dolphins took the right action for the protection of the other players. I’m wondering exactly whose interests were being served here:  Jonathan Martin’s, the other NFL players, or the image and prosperity of the NFL?

Less than a year ago the NFL experienced a similar lesson about the consequences of overlooked behavioral issues with the Jovan Belcher murder and death by suicide in Kansas City.  It was later reported that Jovan had anger management issues in college that flew under the behavioral health radar. He also interacted with law enforcement due to intoxication hours before his the tragic events.  The latest crack down of fines and suspensions on players with helmet to helmet hits and reports of players piling up multiple personal foul penalties are key indicators of at risk victims and perpetrators.  Observing the ways players and the players’ union manipulate the penalty process for these actions is another sign of just how (in)sincere the NFL is in identifying and addressing potential behavioral health issues. In the case of Richie Incognito, with all this information at their disposal, why did it take ten years of warning signs before it was addressed?

Stepping back further, is anybody wondering why, in spite of the deaths by suicide of Junior Seau and Dave Deurson, and traumatic brain injury (TBI) awareness efforts of George Visger and other veterans of the NFL, that nowhere in this discussion was the possibility that TBI could be a factor in Incognito’s problems.  There is an opportunity here to explore the fine lines between brain injury and behavioral health problems. The NFL draft is one of the highest vetting processes in the world.  It is the benchmark of measuring a person’s physical and mental capacities. There should be well documented information regarding every drafted player’s family history, physical history, mental health risks, abilities and potential.  It would seem the organization has the information it needs to look out for the health of its players.  Does the NFL really have a plan to address TBI, helmet to helmet hits, behavioral health and now bullying, or is it just “incognito”?


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