Davone Bess and Metal Illness

Cross posted from my sports blog.


As someone who’s been interested in news about mental illness and also sports, I read Greg Doyel’s piece on Davone Bess, and whether the Dolphins had a duty to help Bess deal with his demons, or were free to trade him away and let it be some other team’s problem, with great interest.

On the one hand, as someone who went through a period of mental illness and clinical depression, and someone who was accommodated by a fantastic boss at the time so that I could continue working while getting help, I feel like the Dolphins acted poorly here. On the other hand, I also understand that getting help and following a treatment plan and building a support network, isn’t the employers job, it’s the individuals. The Dolphins couldn’t do the work for Davone, nor could the Browns. He has to do that, and it appears that he might not have. That is absolutely on him.

Of course, I wasn’t there when the Dolphins decided to trade away Bess, so I’m not privy to what the reasoning was. Does it appear suspicious? Sure. Could I make the football case for it as well,? Yeah. Bess was an “extra” slot receiver on the Dolphins, somewhat expendable.

So whether the Dolphins knew what they were doing and were just trying to get rid of a “problem” by dumping him on another team is debatable.

What isn’t debatable, however, is that this is the way football in particular, but also sports overall, work. The nature of being employed as an athlete is that as long as you are good for the team, you have a job, but the second you bring less benefit to the team when compared to a replacement player, you are gone. That’s the trade-off for all that money and fame and I think most athletes understand it, and accept it.

Those of us who do not work as professional athletes, however, do not like to be reminded that this is how the world works. We like to think that if we were dealing with something like a traumatic event, illness, etc. that there are laws to protect us from simply being let go for that reason. Legally speaking, that is true, but in the real world, employers are making similar judgements about us. That boss who was so fantastic when I was dealing with depression? Would she have been so fantastic if she didn’t see my contributions to her team as having value worth the accommodations she was making for me? Sure, she might not have been able to simply fire me for getting sick, but she could have made my work life much worse, or started looking for other reasons to get rid of me. Who knows for sure? *

The real question, for me, is would she have been right to? Her responsibility is not necessarily to me, it’s to the company she works for, and the rest of her team. If my illness is creating problems, she has to do something about that, and getting rid of me could have been an option once my employment became of less benefit to the company. The Dolphins were making a similar judgement, and on one level, I can understand it.

But there’s another level too. One that brings the whole question of mental illness to the forefront. That level has to do with stigma. Part of the reason that someone with mental illness is a “problem” to a team dynamic is because far too many people in this world are made uncomfortable by the idea of being near anyone with a mental illness. Go look at the comments to Greg’s piece and count the number of times that people refer to Bess’ condition as “fruitcake”, “rubber room”, ‘nutcase” and so on. Is it any wonder that people with depression or other forms of mental illness are loathe to get help and acknowledge that they have a problem? Maybe Bess wouldn’t have been as much of a distraction if he could get help, come to his teammates and say “this is what I’m dealing with, this is what I’m doing, etc.” without worrying that he’d spend the rest of his career being made fun of in the locker room. (And given what we’ve heard about bullying in the Dolphins locker room from other players, I suspect there’s no way Bess would’ve been supported on that team)

It would take a true leader to keep Bess and tell the rest of the team to man up and accept him because he’s your teammate and that’s what you do when a teammate needs support. I’m afraid the Dolphins are in short supply of that kind of leadership.

People like to say that sports and the fans are a microcosm of society as a whole. If so, we have a long, long way to go when it comes to supporting people with mental illness.

* For the record, I don’t believe she was thinking in this way. She actually did everything correctly, she told me the company would do what was necessary to assist, as long as I stuck with it. She told me that her door was always open to talk about what was going on, but she would never ask, she would never interact with me in front of others differently than she did with everyone else, and she would never tell anyone what was going on or why I had to have an odd schedule with 2 hour lunches and staying after hours when I was seeing a therapist 5 days a week, but I could explain it any way I wanted to. By the end of that time, I would have walked through a wall for that woman, all because of this. Which may be another lesson about leadership.

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