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DAVE OWENS: For NFL, Mental Health — Not Racism — the Elephant in the Room

Dave Owens, Special to The Informer | 11/16/2013, noon
There's a larger story here and it has nothing to do with the N-word.
Jonathan Martin (Courtesy of NFL.com)

So Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins and all hell is breaking loose in South Florida. Ever since the mammoth offensive lineman decided enough was enough, sports journalism has latched on to the story in typical news cycle fashion, i.e., getting a bunch of panelists together — including as many ex-players as possible – and blab about it.

First let me say I have tremendous respect for players who have donned uniforms and battled in the trenches. Those former players provide an invaluable and intimate account of what we're seeing on television that those of us who haven't played could never know. That's all well and good when they're talking about stuff they know, but this is something different.

In the past few weeks since Martin walked off the job, I've heard countless ex-jocks tell viewing audiences what they would have done or what Martin should have done. We've heard Miami Dolphins players support Richie Incognito, a player with a lengthy history of bad behavior. Incognito was on the team's leadership council, by the way. Yikes!

Television stations have talked about it with panel after panel after panel after panel. Call up a few jocks and journalists and flap our gums for a few minutes. Now everyone has given his or her opinion and we feel good.

What sports journalism hasn't done is look into the mental health aspect of this issue. What made this 6-foot 5-inch, 320-pound man pack his bags and say "peace out"? Was there ever a pre-draft psychological evaluation done on Martin? When the Dolphins did their pre-draft analysis of Martin, did it only involve on field play? In their background research of the player, did the Dolphins ever see red flags?

This kind of reporting takes time and quite frankly goes against journalism culture in this day and age.

"Machismo does play a role," says Nneka Owens, a licensed professional nationally certified counselor. "The main thing that keeps players from seeking therapy is the fear of dealing with underlying family issues that spill over on the field [or court] that may impact their work and image. For some it's hard to go below the surface and deal with the real issues."

Owens says she's worked with about a dozen professional athletes and says the things she discovers might surprise some fans.

"Anxiety, depression, adjustment issues and grief. Not many people consider being drafted into the pros has its disadvantages, because you have players going from being broke college students to having millions," Owens said. "But some don't know how to manage money and not knowing how to manage the many demands for financial favors. They are now the star of their families and friends and just want to be normal and not stand out too much."

I’m not in a position to suggest Martin had these problems, but I wonder if the Dolphins had a process in place to discover if some of these issues existed. Do other teams?

We know this: Recently, ex-Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain told ESPN that he felt he was on a road similar to Aaron Hernandez, the infamous former tight end for New England currently jailed on murder charges. McClain said he loved the "bubble" of college but never could recreate it as a pro. He cited deep-seated anger management issues as a reason he left the Raiders and was quoted as saying he considered suicide at times.

"You sit there and think, 'Why am I even here?' [and] 'If I'm gone, all this s--- will go away,'" McClain said.

Instead, sports journalism has elected to focus on a player with a checkered past (Incognito) who dropped an N-bomb. The word is awful, but that's not the story here. The story is whether the Dolphins ever did any background checking on Martin and, if so, what did that investigation unearth? Moreover, why on Earth would any coaching staff enlist Incognito, a player with serious issues himself, to help toughen up Martin and then not check and make sure everything is going OK? Hopefully the NFL will ask these questions in their investigation.

There's a larger story here and it has nothing to do with the damn N-word!

Dave Owens is a sports anchor/reporter at WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., and a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Contact him on Twitter @DaveOwensWUSA.