Random Tragedies, Mental Health, And The Problem With Pro Sports

It's one thing when something like the Tiger Woods scandal happens. As sports fans, we can understand that. It sounds strange—because Tiger's fall from grace caught us all off guard—but it happened within a familiar framework. [Insert athlete] has a spotless reputation, a storybook career, and then [insert scandal] happened, and we suddenly see the forest for the trees. We'd missed the point all along. That happens often enough so that it's not a surprise anymore.

Whether it was Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis, Brett Favre's painkiller addiction, the 90s Cowboys buying a house specifically to do drugs and have sex, Michael Jordan's extensive extra-marital affairs, Kobe in Colorado... We're used to reversing our course on these things. Athletes disappoint us; that's just what happens.

But here's the thing. All of those people are world-famous superstars, insulated by money and fame against the dangers of self-destruction. As bad as things get for Tiger Woods, he's still got hundreds of millions of dollars, one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, and a skill that will keep him relevant for another twenty years. The only thing more familiar than a superstar's fall from grace is that person's redemption. But not everyone gets to stay relevant while they figure things out. 

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Beyond the one-name mega-stars like Magic, Tiger, and Jordan, there are plenty of characters in this billion-dollar business that don't have the means to keep themselves from fading into oblivion. Where principals like Tiger Woods fall from grace in full view, there are so many others that quietly recede to the margins, left to toil in obscurity. One minute, Kirk Snyder (above) is a rising star in the NBA, and the next, nobody really remembers him. And Snyder's story, brilliantly chronicled by Ross Siler at the Salt Lake Tribune, just kept nagging at me all day on Sunday.

He was drafted 16th overall by the Utah Jazz in 2004, ahead of current stars like Josh Smith, Jameer Nelson, and Kevin Martin. He wasn't tabbed for greatness, necessarily, but at 6'5, with a solid frame and eons of athleticism, nobody would have been surprised had he blossomed into something special. But that wasn't going to happen in Utah. As Jerry Sloan explains of the decision to trade him:

I had a few bumps in the road with him, but he seemed to bounce back. ... He wanted to start and he was always wanting to get more playing time, which young guys do. I didn't have a problem with that, but he was pretty adamant sometimes about wanting to play more and I had to make a decision based on what I thought was best for the team.

From Utah, Snyder moved to New Orleans. And then Houston. And then Minnesota. In each stop, it seemed he would scratch the surface of greatness and scare his team in equal measure. There was just something... A little off with him.  As one of his former employers put it:

"Nine times out of 10 you'd walk away thinking nothing was wrong with him," said the former staffer on one Snyder's teams. But the staffer added: "Some of the things he'd say, we'd shake our heads like, 'Whoa. What planet is he on?'"

To anyone that gave it a second thought, Snyder was clearly suffering from some sort of mental instability. And when nobody signed him after his stint in Minnesota, everyone sort of forgot about him. The rest of the league moved on, and Snyder went to play in China. Months later, the bizarre behavior came to a head. Again from Siler:

At 3:36 a.m., former Jazz first-round draft pick Kirk Snyder allegedly broke into the home of his neighbors, Bradley and Eugenia Roberts, and beat a sleeping Bradley with both his fists and an alarm clock, according to police reports.

The assault was as violent as it was brief. Snyder allegedly fled the home minutes later as Eugenia Roberts came to her husband's aid. Police quickly identified him and arrested him at gunpoint, then booked him into the Warren County Jail in bloodstained clothes.

Just like that, the impossibly athletic swingman, otherwise a mortal lock for a 15-year NBA career, faces 18 years in prison, and nobody really cares. He's just another criminal. And while the whole country mourned Chris Henry, it struck me that he and Snyder really weren't that different. Both were blessed with immense talent--truly, the sky was the limit for both of them--but handicapped by demons that the outside world could never fully understand. And we never so much as tried. 

Early on, when Chris Henry made plays for the Bengals, you got the sense that you were looking at the future of the franchise. Big, fast, and so graceful that he made the impossible look effortless; he was part of a new breed of receivers that have come to dominate the NFL. Cincinnati's Chad Johnson was dominant in spite of his shortcomings, but that meant there was a ceiling on how successful he'd ever be; with Chris Henry, that ceiling disappeared. He was literally as big and as fast as the best players in the entire league, and when it clicked, you could hear the whole Bengals family say at the same time... Wow!

And the same was true of Kirk Snyder. With his story fresh in my mind, it made mourning Henry tragic on two levels. First, that Henry had to leave us in such a spectacularly senseless fashion. That's obvious, and it's a crushing blow to the Bengals, football fans, and anyone with a heart. But more than just the way he died, was that this stuff happens so often.

This wasn't the first indication we had that all was not well in the house of Chris Henry. But so often, if you're not a superstar, either the player (like Kirk Snyder) or the problems (like Chris Henry) get cast aside. If someone's a superstar and runs into trouble, we'll launch a whole investigation into their psychology and motives and potential for rehabilitation. Suddenly, Tiger Woods "was compensating for deep-seated self-esteem issues" and blah blah blah. 

But what about the others? The indiscretions of someone like Chris Henry, or Kirk Snyder's sporadic outbursts, are looked upon not as a cause to take a closer look, but as a reason to look elsewhere for the next superstar. 

Remember Eddie Griffin? He was a lottery pick in 2001. As a power forward coming out Seton Hall, he had range out to 20 feet, could run the floor, and was a big time shot blocker. He had the total package as far as a young big man's concerned. But even at Seton Hall he had personal problems, getting into fights with teammates and coaches. When he hit the NBA and suddenly had millions of dollars to play with, it all got exacerbated. Here's how it ended:

Eddie Griffin, who played five seasons in the National Basketball Association, died last week when the sports-utility vehicle he was driving collided with a moving train in Houston, authorities said. He was 25.

Dental comparisons were used today to identify Griffin, whose body was badly burned in the crash, Jennifer Coston, deputy chief of investigations at the Harris County, Texas, medical examiner's office, said in a telephone interview.

Griffin disregarded a warning signal, drove through a railroad arm and struck the side of a moving freight train on Aug. 17, according to a news release from the Houston Police Department. Griffin's vehicle was consumed by flames, and he died at the scene. 

Griffin was a troubled individual, and anyone that came into contact with him could tell you as much. It was a hilarious footnote to the sports world when he was caught drunk, alone and masturbating in his SUV, but nobody ever gave it a second thought. When you think about it, to get caught in a situation like that, you have to be profoundly disturbed--or at least drunk enough to warrant a double-take from the people closest to you. Instead of doing a double take, though, that SUV-incident pretty much sealed his fate as a lottery-bust. Lost cause. He was released, and then a few months after that, he got sideswiped by a freight train. 

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It's an extreme example, but even that extreme doesn't really resonate with many people. Because who remembers Eddie Griffin? And how many NBA fans know who Kirk Snyder is? We all remember Chris Henry this week, but what about five years from now? This stuff happens more than we think, but we all too conveniently forget.

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One of the coolest parts of sports is that beyond all the heartstopping games and the tailgates and the camaraderie with other fans, if you step back, it says as much about us as it does any of the players or teams involved. The way we process someone like Chad Ochocinco is a reflection on our culture--vilified by a vocal minority that despise different, and celebrated by the majority for, well, his celebrations. To take another example, the evolution of Kobe Bryant has been one of the more fascinating subplots of the last twenty years. From prodigy, to selfish gunner, to full-on villain, to presumed rapist, to MVP, to suddenly this elder statesmen in the NBA. I mean, can you think of another person that's undergone that many image makeovers?

The whole charade is an indication of the way we work as a society. Everything, from the way we understand athletes to the way we defer to proselytizing columnists to the way we all get behind a team like the Saints. It's all a reflection on us. Sometimes it's depressing--try watching Around the Horn this afternoon--but just as often, it's reassuring--like the NFL, finally wising up to its concussion problem. Twenty years too late, but still. Give us enough time, and we can get it right.

And that's why Chris Henry's death, and Kirk Snyder's demise, should sound an alarm. These aren't all isolated tragedies. But again, their checkered histories were looked upon not as cause to take a closer look, but as a reason for fans and teams to look past them. But with billions of dollars being poured into football and basketball every year--and everybody watching--we should be able to do better. 

You would hope that with all the money invested in players like Griffin, Snyder, and Henry, you'd have people willing to be patient and work with them to get this stuff figured out. There are serious mental health issues at play with many professional athletes. Remember when police caught Delonte West speeding on a motorcycle in Maryland, carrying like eight different guns? Maybe Chris Henry wasn't bipolar like West, but when you see that lasting image of Henry, shirtless with his arm in a splint and banging on the cab of his girlfriend's pickup truck... It's as profoundly disturbing as seeing Delonte West carrying a bunch of high-powered guns and speeding away on a motorcycle. Something wasn't right with Chris Henry. And this wasn't the first instance. 

But instead of confronting the problems facing bit players like Chris Henry, Kirk Snyder, Delonte West, and countless other athletes undoubtedly suffering from mental health issues, we're left with a sports culture that was surprised to mourn Chris Henry, but not that surprised. For many fans and media, it was a foregone conclusion that it'd end in some sort of disaster, but nobody ever thought to intervene. If these were superstars, maybe it'd be different, but they weren't, so we forget.

And besides, how would a team--or a league--even go about helping someone like that? 

Right now, we need to figure that out. Because really, it's all a reflection on us. Chris Henry was a brilliant athlete, but like so many others blessed with brilliance, it seems he was deeply troubled. Same with Snyder and Delonte West. But it's not important because of Kirk Snyder and Chris Henry.

Instead, it's because like concussions, this problem isn't going away. There will be another Eddie Griffin, another Kirk Snyder, another bipolar starting point guard like Delonte West... And another Chris Henry. These are professional sports, the whole world is watching, and there are billions at our disposal. Whether it's the NFL and NBA setting up a program to deal with these issues or outsourcing them to independent doctors, we can do better than what we've got. 

There will be another player with the same problems as Chris Henry. But if we can pay attention to this stuff, maybe that player's story will have a different ending. Chrishenry_medium

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