THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED
In April 2011, then–Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall trapped his wife Michi in a closet to keep her from leaving. She retaliated and was charged with aggravated battery after apparently stabbing Brandon in the stomach.
For any couple, this sounds like a wakeup call, but for Brandon, the incident had an unfortunate inevitability about it. “I was a ticking time bomb,” Brandon tells ESPN’s E:60, in a short documentary called “Brandon Marshall – Borderline.” “Depressed, isolated, suffering. Carrying a lot of baggage.”
Ever since Brandon’s traumatic childhood—his mother Diane filed three protection orders against his abusive father Fred—Brandon bottled up his pain. “It was volatile,” he says in the video. “I heard my mother and dad arguing one time, police coming, it was chaos. Sometimes I would isolate myself. At the time, I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
His parents finally separated when Brandon was nine, and although his father’s behavior had scarred him, he was devastated to see his parents break up. His emotional struggles continued; Brandon’s teenage years and early twenties were marked by brushes with the law and accusations of physical abuse in his relationships.
On the field, he was a famously volatile teammate. “You just didn’t know what you were going to get,” says Jay Cutler, Brandon’s quarterback during Brandon’s first years in the NFL with the Denver Broncos. “Sometimes he would come in, and he wouldn’t want to listen in meetings, he wouldn’t want to practice, he’d walk out of meetings. No matter what you’d say to him, he didn’t want to hear it, he was just mad at you.”
The angry and erratic behavior spilled over into his marriage. “Sometimes you have to fall on your face or totally hit rock bottom before things change in your life,” Brandon says, recalling the stabbing incident to the documentary crew.
Soon afterward, he sought help by reaching out to his then-teammate Ricky Williams, who by that time had obtained treatment for his social anxiety disorder. Ricky recommended Harvard Medical School, and Brandon entered a program there, undergoing a full psychiatric evaluation, where he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
“BPD is a well understood psychological disorder. It’s not a form of misbehavior,” says Harvard’s Dr. Mary Zanarini, who treated Brandon. More frequently diagnosed than schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, BPD affects 1 in 50 adults, and symptoms often first appear in early adulthood.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health disorder that generates significant emotional instability. This can lead to a variety of other stressful mental and behavioral problems.
With borderline personality disorder, you may have a severely distorted self-image and feel worthless and fundamentally flawed. Anger, impulsiveness and frequent mood swings may push others away, even though you may desire to have loving and lasting relationships.
“Borderline personality disorder overwhelmingly is diagnosed in women,” says Candy Czernecki of Pysch Central. “It says a great deal that a macho football player was willing to own up to it and get treatment. Granted, his track record before the diagnosis was abysmal—domestic violence, drunk driving, and more—but obviously someone stepped in and suggested he take care of himself.”
In May 2011, Brandon entered treatment at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where he worked with BPD pioneer Dr. Marsha Linehan, developer of a technique called dialectic behavior therapy. According to SB Nation’s medical expert Ali Mohamadi, DBT “teaches patients four skills: mindfulness (attention to one’s experience), interpersonal effectiveness (predominantly assertiveness), emotional regulation, and distress tolerance without impulsivity.”
After leaving McLean, Brandon surprisingly decided to go public with his diagnosis at a July 31, 2011, press conference.
His mom Diane was against all of this. “That’s my child,” she told ESPN E:60. “I didn’t want nobody to think my baby was crazy.”
Brandon, however, felt it was important. “It’s part of my healing,” he told journalist Omar Kelly. “And I hope it can help others heal, help others end their shame. I have a mental disorder, but it’s not a death sentence.”
Kelly was among the impressed, writing, “Brandon Marshall isn’t the bravest athlete I’ve covered. After admitting to the world he’s struggling with a mental disorder, it’s more fitting to describe the Miami Dolphins receiver as the bravest person I’ve known. Admitting to your family something is wrong with the way your brain’s wired is courageous. Telling the world you have a mental disorder is fearless.”
Brandon has since started his own mental-health foundation, Project Borderline; has spoken at mental-health fundraisers with folks like Joe Biden and Kathleen Sibelius; and is probably the only athlete in the world to know this bit of trivia, which he tweeted this October:
Unlike some athletes, who start non-profits and show up only to write the checks, Brandon is a consistent presence at his foundation, and now views his experience and visibility in the NFL as a tool to help raise awareness about mental health. This October, during Breast Cancer Awareness month in the NFL, when many players wear pink accessories, Brandon instead chose to wear lime-green cleats (the color of mental health awareness), knowing that it wasn’t sanctioned by the NFL and he’d receive a $10,500 fine for a uniform violation.
While it seems ridiculous that the NFL of all places would fine a player for supporting mental-health advocacy, they’ve agreed to let breast-cancer awareness enjoy an NFL monopoly in October and punish any player who attempts to support a different cause, no matter how worthy.
When Brandon heard about the fine, he was unfazed. “The league’s going to hit me with a nice, little fine,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “The money I’m going to match and give it to a great foundation doing some work in the mental-health community.” He also auctioned off the lime-green cleats, raising another $3600.
“Football is my platform not my purpose,” he tweeted. “This fine is nothing compared to the conversation started & awareness raised.”
Meanwhile, Brandon’s wife and coworkers have noted a personal evolution. “The difference I see is more communication,” Michi says in the E:60 doc. “Better understanding of possibly himself and other people, and their feelings.”
“He was one of those guys who used to be the problem,” Jay Cutler, now Brandon’s quarterback on the Chicago Bears, adds. “Now if there’s any communication issues, he’s one of the guys that steps right in there, solves the problem.”
One wonders if a lot pain and suffering in Brandon’s life could’ve been avoided if he’d been encouraged to seek help sooner. For his part, Brandon feels that his honesty and maturity in regards to his emotions, which he only developed during intense psychiatric treatment, would be well-served in the NFL, especially in the wake of the Jonathan Martin hazing scandal.
“Take a little boy and a little girl,” Brandon told the Chicago Tribune. “A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ When a little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, you can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change.”
Irresponsible prediction of the week: The Houston Texans will finally win again when they host the Raiders. Quarterback Case Keenum, who’s from Texas, went to University of Houston, and now plays for the Houston Texans, is still looking for his first win as a starter. This week, at last, it will happen in front of people who remember how he used to eat his mac and cheese out of a pot in college so he didn’t create more dirty dishes.
Oh, and Pittsburgh wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery will score for the third week in a row, and still no fantasy player will own him. The man was born with six fingers on his left hand and still none of you will claim him off waivers. You’re only embarrassing yourselves.
THE DREAM OF A RIDICULOUS MAN
In much the same way that a fourteen-year-old boy loves strip clubs or abuse at the hands of a more handsome classmate, I love the Chicago Bears fans in my life. They have access to real and idealized experiences that I, as a Vikings fan, can only imagine, and they seem to exist to remind me that I’m missing out.
Their 1985 team alone made WWF-size personalities out of its players; even many non–sports fans of that generation still remember Walter Payton, William “Refrigerator” Perry, and Jim McMahon better than they can recall their own state senators from the era. Abetted by a music video that seemed like the coolest and most entertaining sports promotion of all time, brilliantly centered around a dance craze, their Super Bowl victory seemed like an afterthought.
To this day, they idolize Mike Ditka to such excess that it’s easy to forget that, as a head coach, he only ever brought them to that one Super Bowl. Do Ditka fans really want to relive the 1989 season where they went 6–10, or the grim 5–11 squad of 1992? Ditka, gilded by nostalgia, revisionism, and a long-running hagiographic SNL satire, has been exaggeratedly deified for so long it’s no wonder he describes himself as an “ultra-ultra-ultra conservative.” Of all the corrosive effects of early sainthood, conservatism is the saddest, but in Ditka’s current field of sports entertainment, reductionism and binary thinking are far from a hindrance.
What breaks my heart both as a Vikings fan and a human being is that, in spite of all this, I kind of like Mike Ditka. Ditka the Image carries positive connotations in terms of a certain brand of take-no-bullshit masculine competence that, if you’re from the Midwest like I am, is sort of held up as the apotheosis of a successful male personality. Thank God all of that is evolving, but I was raised around people who believed that Ditka was the kind of guy you wanted on your side in a fight, in your car in case of a flat, or in your home in case of a fire.
Maybe if you choose a lifestyle where those three things are far less likely, the rest of the package loses its appeal quicker than a grilled cheese sandwich left out in the rain, but until then, Ditka’s fiery brand of utility and terse efficiency seemed to inspire confidence across all Midwestern age groups. From a humble background as the son of an immigrant welder (crucially so, hewing to the ideal Midwest hero origin story), Ditka was the personification of how a lead dog was supposed to behave when shit got serious: tenacious, passionate, obstinate, and, if things turned out OK, darkly humorous.
For someone who’s never going to meet Ditka, the main reason to dislike him is the state of the current Chicago Bears bar and the mien of its customers. Since Ditka left Soldier Field, the optimism that attended his presence has proved unsustainable. While Bears fans aren’t as dark or violent as some other fan bases, they carry a Chicagoan’s sense of shared-suffering-as-community, and their duty to watch every Bears game is saturated by a resolute bleakness. To be fair, six months of scraping ice off of your windshield can do this to anyone, but even expatriate Bears fans carry winter in their blood with them for years after they leave lake-effect snow behind.
Even if I sympathize with this, I will never knowingly enter a Bears bar if my purpose is to watch a football game with any sustained sense of comfort. Most Bears fans I know are willing to drink and/or tolerate near-fatal quantities of alcohol before noon, so by the third quarter of most Bears games, both successful and unsuccessful drives begin to inspire equal fury and menace.
Is fury simply grief, amplified? It is in the hands of some Bears fans, anyway, which is why I was dismayed to find that my usually neutral bar had been taken over by Bears fans last weekend. My friend Gummi, who I’ve known since I was eight, was visiting town, and we just wanted to hang out, talk to the locals, and watch some games. Our conversation with a former Division I women’s rugby player was frequently interrupted by a couple of guys who expressed their love and hate for Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery at above conversational tones. Their opinion changed frequently, and we heard every iteration.
“Goddamn, Jeffery sucks shit!” one of them said, just to be followed, a few minutes later, by “Fuck yeah! You see that downfield block by Jeffery? Dude is awesome!”
I learned years ago, in my personal life, that I cannot survive on so fierce an emotional pendulum. Sports for me are a calm diversion, not a volatile release. Then again, in 1985, I was impartially watching the most famous team of my generation win a boring Super Bowl, not affixing my emotional well-being to a dizzying achievement that’s never been replicated.
For these folks, even a mid-season loss to the Detroit Lions takes on the tragedy of W.H. Auden’s soldiers in “The Shield of Achilles.” “What their foes liked to do was done,” Auden writes. “Their shame was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride / and died as men before their bodies died.” And now this Sunday, without an injured Jay Cutler, they have to play the defending Super Bowl champ, the Baltimore Ravens.
I suppose when one’s team becomes king of the sports world, any subsequent lesser achievement becomes a kind of suffering. Even before he was immortal, however, Ditka was mortal, in that final losing season as a Bears coach, and his fall, though not often remembered, set the course for all of the mood swings that followed.
Should they thank him? Goddamn right they should.
AN UNPLEASANT PREDICAMENT
In the NFL, long hair is considered part of the uniform. Therefore, you can be tackled by it, and players increasingly are. In 2003, the league enacted what’s known as “The Ricky Rule,” after former Miami running back Ricky Williams, who was dragged down by his hair at least twice that season.
Last season, according to an ESPN article, about 180 players had at least shoulder-length hair. Over 32% of these folks are defensive backs—safeties and cornerbacks—because they’re supposed to be the ones doing the tackling. Still, when they grab an interception or a fumble, their follicles are just as much in play. Just ask Head & Shoulders pitchman Troy Polamalu, who was famously dragged down from behind by his hair against the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2006.
For offensive players like wide receivers, it’s simply a matter of choosing to suffer for fashion, tradition, or even the memory of a loved one. Larry Fitzgerald, who has worn dreadlocks since 2003 in honor of his late mother, is critical of his colleagues who let their long hair get sloppy. “There are two types of dudes in the NFL,” Larry says. “The dudes who care about their dreads and the dudes who don’t.”
The most frequently tackled player in an entire game is almost always a team’s starting running back, and even a baffling ten percent of those folks subject themselves to the possibility of being yanked out of a full sprint by an extremely strong man pulling their hair. Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams once grew dreads, assuming that being tackled by his hair would invite a “horse-collar tackle” penalty, which he learned was absolutely not true.
“That’s why it’s braided now,” he told NBC Sports.
Defensive players love this rule. “If I see a guy running with the ball and he has long hair, I’ll tackle him by it, sure,” Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck told USA Today. “If a guy wants to wear it that long, he can be tackled by it. I’ll pull it on purpose.”
While the origin of the long-hair trend among current NFL players is in dispute (former Packer defensive back Al Harris claims it’s due to him), Larry Fitzgerald probably speaks for most of the league when he delineates what could end this form of expression. “If Peyton and Eli Manning start growing their hair out,” Larry says, “you know it’s time to cut yours off.”