Help available to players

Len Pasquarelli explores the programs that the NFL has in place to help players deal with a wide range of off-field concerns.

Originally Published: September 28, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In the wake of Wednesday's media feeding frenzy, and the reports over whether Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens did or did not attempt suicide by ingesting painkillers, questions have been raised in general about the services that NFL franchises provide to players who might suffer from depression or other mentally debilitating conditions.

The answer: Programs are in place at both the league and team levels, and have been for many years, that are designed to aid players in dealing with a wide range of off-field concerns, including depression.

So after a Wednesday filled with psychobabble, much of it from people who aren't analysts but apparently enjoy filling the role of amateur shrink, it's time for a dose of straight talk on Thursday from the man who essentially oversees the array of NFL assistance programs.

"I think the message we're always trying to convey is that the programs are there, and are available to the players and their spouses, and all they need to do is reach out," said Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes, the NFL vice president of player and employee programs. "Unfortunately, players deal with a problem the same way, time and time again. It's difficult for a young man to admit he has a problem, and there is a kind of stigma attached to it. But we're trying to change the culture in the league, in a lot of ways, and we want our players to know that the help is here."

That help, primarily under the aegis of the wide-ranging Player Assistance Program, which is administrated by Dr. Sara Hickmann, can come in many forms: financial advice, marital counseling and treatment for substance abuse, depression, or any other manner of physical or mental problem.

"I think the message we're always trying to convey is that the programs are there, and are available to the players and their spouses, and all they need to do is reach out"
Mike Haynes, NFL vice president of player and employee programs

The program, which is totally confidential, is funded by the NFL and players and their spouses can apply for assistance up to four times each.

Principally, the program begins at the team level, with each franchise in the league employing at least one director of player development or director of player programs. For many teams, the responsibility of the person holding that title used to be directed more toward continuing education, encouraging players to go back to school to complete their degree work. But as the position has evolved, the parameters clearly have broadened, as have the situations with which directors of player development have been asked to deal.

As part of their player development programs, most teams now have a psychiatrist or a psychologist on staff or referral. And nearly half of the directors are onetime league players, who are now retired, but who can relate to the problems players confront off the field.

Players can seek assistance through the director of player programs or through an 800-number, made available on a Web site and in an annual mailing to their homes, in which all inquiries are kept confidential.

"We pay the bills," Haynes said, "but we never know the names of the players or, in some cases maybe, their spouses. We don't know, the coach doesn't know, only the clinician knows, and that's it. But a player has to seek the help. A coach or team official might be able to say, like, 'There seems to be something going on here, and maybe you need to get some help, OK?' But they can't refer a player. That's up to the player or his wife and, sure, that's where it gets hard sometimes."

Noted the director of player development for one team, who could not speak for attribution because he had not cleared his comments with the club which employs him: "It's like the old 'you can lead a horse to water' deal, you know? The programs are terrific, and we're in locker rooms every day [apprising] guys of them, but they have to want to use it. And it just takes time, and the breaking down of some [stereotypes] for guys to come around."

Some critics have pointed to problems encountered by former NFL players such as Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood, both of whom battled bipolar disorder, as evidence that the league failed them in some way. The fact is, however, that the teams involved with those players attempted to get them help. It's difficult to argue that Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who signed both players after they were released by other teams, didn't go to great lengths to assist them.

But in the NFL, as in society at large, the people who are helped most often are those who want to be helped.

One recent aid in addressing some of the old barriers, Haynes said, is a videotape that teams now use at their annual life-skills programs. The video features Warrick Dunn, and in it the Atlanta Falcons' star tailback details how he used the Player Assistance Program at a time when he was undergoing a problem with depression.

"That [video] has been an effective tool for us," Haynes said. "Probably every team uses it. And a lot of teams will have clinicians that they invite to their life-skills sessions, professionals who will pass out their business cards, and let players know they are available. But people have to know when they need help and ask for it, and we're trying to make players understand it's a natural thing to do."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.