Some would say that athletes are as close as we come to modern-day gladiators. They’re specimens of physical fitness who perform feats of strength for our amusement. While we don’t give them a thumbs up or down to show our approval, we definitely let them know when we are unhappy with their performance.
And while they may not be facing lions or large men with swords, there are hazards to being an athlete. Injuries, which can be career ending or even life threatening, can and do happen. Huge contracts are dished out, bringing just as much pressure as money. While we may right them off as overpaid and incredibly lucky to play a children’s game for a living, it isn’t that easy for them. Because as trite and laughable as it may sound, we can’t forget that pro athletes are people too.
Rick DiPietro was supposed to be the next big thing in hockey. The American goalie, who made a name for himself at Boston University, was taken first overall in the 2000 entry draft by the New York Islanders. He had a shaky start to his NHL career, but honed his craft in the minors. After representing the United States in the 2006 Winter Olympics, he signed an unprecedented 15-year, $67.5 million contract.
The next season, DiPietro suffered a concussion. It seemed like nothing out of the ordinary; little did the Islanders know it would be the start of an unbelievable string of injuries. During the offseason, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum. In 2007, he participated in the All-Star game and blew out his hip in the shoot-out competition (while wearing a microphone). Once the Islanders were officially out of playoff contention, he had surgery and missed the rest of the season.
In 2008, he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. He missed most of 2009 and the start of 2010 with swelling of the same knee. When he returned, he was demoted to back-up. In February of 2011, he fought with Penguins goalie Brent Johnson. “Rickety”, as DiPietro came to be known, was caught with a left hook, and was shelved with facial fractures. At the start of the next season, he was concussed when he was hit in the helmet with a shot in practice. While he was injured, he also had surgery for a sports hernia, ending his season.
Two weeks ago, DiPietro was demoted to the Islander’s minor league affiliate. There he spoke to the media about the difficulties of his career, which had turned into a running joke before his eyes. Saying the organization had, “ripped [his] heart out, stabbed it, set it on fire and flushed it down the toilet,” he reportedly said there were times when the pressure of his contract, inability to play, and hate from the fans were almost too much.
A local reporter tweeted that DiPietro said he considered suicide, either by driving into a tree or off the Throgs Neck Bridge. While he has since stated that the comments were not meant to be taken literally and only were intended to credit his wife for her unfailing support, the message is clear: DiPietro has struggled on a personal level.
“There have been times that I’ve been depressed, and I don’t know where I’d be without the support of my wife,” he said. “It’s been a trying last couple of years.”
Unfortunately, this sort of emotional honesty is not accepted in professional sports. In fact, soon after the comments blew up on Twitter, hockey reporter and former Islanders P.R guy Chris Botta, posted the following tweet:
DiPietro makes 4.5, is married to a wonderful and beautiful person and has the loyalty of his employer. Tough times. Wake up, Ricky.
— Chris Botta (@ChrisBottaNHL) February 28, 2013
This is the norm, rather than the exception in the pro ranks. Former Saints and Dolphins running back Ricky Williams reportedly had such crippling social anxiety disorder that he would do interviews with his helmet on and hide alone in his room. When he told his coach, Jim Haslett, about his struggles Williams claims that Haslett used profanity to tell him, in not so many words, “to stop being a baby and just play football.” Soon after, he broke his ankle and was fawned over by team doctors and concerned teammates. “There’s a physical prejudice in sports,” Williams said. “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.”
Elsewhere in sports, former Mets and Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine referred to a depressed pitcher as “gutless”. A player who was suffering from depression once confronted Vin Baker, an NBA coach. “Run it off” was the coach’s advice.
In a cruelly ironic twist, there are many factors that could lead an athlete to depression. Concussions and head injuries can increase the odds of emotional issues. Others, like former Denver Bronco Kenny McKinley, who committed suicide in 2010, suffer terrible injuries and could not imagine going on. Growing up doing nothing but playing sports, many athletes cannot imagine any other way of life and fear tge financial repercussions from immature decisions; McKinley faced the end of his career after only eight professional games and had assumed a large gambling debt.
For others, the pressure is simply too much. If your day-to-day work seems stressful, imagine having it scrutinized by millions around the world instead of just your professor or boss. Imagine waking up in the morning and having newspapers and television stations recounting how you failed your team, your city, and your fans.
Some say that was what drove Angels pitcher Donnie Moore over the edge in the late ‘80s. After blowing the game in the 1986 ALCS, he struggled emotionally, eventually shooting his wife and daughter before taking his own life. While there are suggestions that he had previous mental and relationship issues, those close to him think the home run was what put him over the edge. “I think insanity set in. He could not live with himself after Henderson hit the home run. He kept blaming himself,” Moore’s agent, Mike Pinter said. “That home run killed him.”
So what are we to make of these athletes? Is the answer to stop booing and turn pro sports into a grade school situation where everyone is given an award and equally praised? Not by a long shot. Instead, mental struggles should be treated the same as physical ones. Admitting depression, anxiety, or anything else, should be accepted, not be branded as weakness or being out of touch with reality. The do make millions for playing a game, but they also face the constant threat of career ending injury and insane amounts of pressure. Just remember that pro athletes are people too.