We expect pro athletes to deal with physical injuries. We recognize that the demands on an athlete’s body are intense. But what about when an athlete discloses mental illness? How do we — and how should we — react then?
Today’s guest, retired NFL player and TV personality Nate Burleson, explains that usually the reaction is to mock the player as weak, not strong enough to compete, or accuse them of letting down their team.
We delve into all that and discuss whether professional athletes face additional mental health challenges due to their careers and celebrity.
Nate Burleson is a co-host of “CBS Mornings,” an Emmy Award-winning studio analyst for the CBS Television Network’s NFL pre-game show, “The NFL Today,” and makes select appearances on Nickelodeon.
Prior to joining CBS News, Burleson served as a host on “Good Morning Football” on the NFL Network for 5 years. Burleson’s television career began in 2014 with the NFL Network after retiring from the NFL.
Burleson played in the NFL for 11 years as a wide receiver with the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, and Detroit Lions. In 2003, he was drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings. Burleson is the only player in NFL history to have three punt returns of 90-or-more yards.
A native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Burleson resides in New Jersey with his wife, Atoya, and three children, Nathaniel, Nehemiah, and Mia Pearl. See more at www.cbsnews.com/team/nate-burleson/
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome, everybody, I’m Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Nate Burleson. Mr. Burleson is the co-host of CBS Mornings and an Emmy Award winning studio analyst for the CBS NFL pregame show, The NFL Today. He played in the NFL for 11 years as a wide receiver with the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions, and he is the only player in NFL history to have three punt returns of 90 or more yards. Mr. Burleson, welcome to the show.
Nate Burleson: Thank you for having me on, I appreciate the invite.
Gabe Howard: Well, thank you so much for accepting the invitation, because I was very, very impressed with a video that you were in called Sick, Not Weak about mental health in athletics. Now, as somebody who lives with bipolar disorder, you can see where this would be meaningful to me because often when there is reporting on the mental health or mental illness of athletes, it portrays the athletes as weak as not being mentally strong enough to compete at the highest levels. However, it’s just expected that athletes will constantly be dealing with a wide variety of physical challenges. Why do you think it’s not the same for mental health? Because I have to imagine that the mental demands of competing at literally the highest level of sport in front of millions of people has to be mentally taxing.
Nate Burleson: Yeah, I think initially, athletes have been looked at the same way since the inception of sports or competition, and we can date it all the way back to gladiator events where these guys battling out in some type of competition, oftentimes to the death. And the viewer, the fan, the spectator was just concerned with the physicality of what they were watching. So I think this is almost embedded in us. As spectators of certain sports, all we think about is how great this athlete must be physically and then the end result. You know, athletes, we seem like we’re so much bigger than life. So it does catch people off guard when we talk about mental health. But, we’re just everyday civilians that just happen to be blessed with certain attributes that make us good at our job, which is playing sports. What we’re witnessing now is almost a revolution when it comes to mental health and how we perceive athletes. You’re spot on when it comes to how we look at an athlete recovering from something physical, we praise them. Oh man, he had an ACL and he bounced back a couple of months earlier than expected. He’s tough. He’s out of this world. He must be an alien. He’s built different. But then as soon as an athlete talks about exhaustion or depression or battling with certain things that he can’t get a grasp on and he might need to take medication or go seek therapy, then all of a sudden, as a spectator, we sit back and say, Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not what we signed up for. We didn’t sign up to hear you complain about what’s going on inside your head or what’s going on with how you’re feeling.
Gabe Howard: Do you think that one of the reasons that you can’t catch a break is because people are just afraid of it? They’re terrified of it, and they don’t want to hear about it in their leisure activity and they have an excuse. They say things like, Oh, he can comfort himself with his millions or, well, she’s rich and famous, so it doesn’t hurt her when, in reality, mental illness and mental health issues, they don’t really give a crap about your job, your status, your wealth or anything. Does that make it difficult for people in your position to get help?
Nate Burleson: You know, some people say that money is the root of all evil. In the moment I became a celebrity or an athlete or the moment I won an Oscar or the MVP or the moment I became a famous influencer, my life changed for the worse. So I can’t speak on other people. I’m just talking about Nate Burleson. I will never complain about being blessed because I am in a privileged position. Yes, I worked my butt off to get to the NFL and earn the money I made, but I’m not going to turn around and ask you to feel sorry for me because I made that money. Now dealing with what comes along with being an instant millionaire? That’s a completely different story. Yeah, there’s a rock star lifestyle element of being an athlete, for sure. You get praise and people love you. They tell you how great you are. And they know your highlights better than you do. You can walk into a restaurant, somebody will pick up your tab, somebody will stop you in the street and ask for a picture. A kid’ll come up to you like you’re Santa Claus and ask for an autograph. All that is great for the spirit. And those pats on the back, it’s really an experience like no other.
Nate Burleson: Now, on the flip side, you might have somebody who doesn’t know how to handle the pressures of being the breadwinner of their family, someone who has never had money that all of a sudden is thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars. And you have people reaching and asking and begging. All the while you’re trying to deal with not just societal pressures and pressure from fan bases in your team, but your own expectations of being the best athlete you can be. That’s when it starts to wear on the athlete. And what we do because we’ve been told since a very young age. Just power through it, Just power through it. I know it’s going to hurt, but you’ll be OK. You’re good, you’re tough. You’re built differently. And because we have never had these real conversations about the wealth of your mental health, we applied that same philosophy to the fractures we have on our soul, on our minds and because we put these Band-Aids on real life issues. Because we haven’t dealt with it before. We just had to put a Band-Aid on it.
Nate Burleson: But just like an injury that you don’t address physically. It could end up worse at the end. And the same thing with mental health. We’ve seen it time and time again with athletes and celebrities, there’s this tragic event. Sometimes it ends with death or a public incident. And people are like, Oh, look at this, look at this celebrity or this athlete acting crazy, or could you believe what that woman did or what that man did? Can you believe it? They got all the money in the world. They have everything that they. Could you believe what they did? Unbelievable. Well, you know what I could, because maybe that one incident that you saw that hit the headlines, maybe that one incident was just the end result of an athlete crying out for help over and over and over again. And if you look back at some of these issues that athletes deal with, it’s not just about physical exhaustion, but mental too. So yeah, there has been hesitancy for years, but I do think that has changed.
Nate Burleson: You know, you look at Naomi Osaka taking a stand and saying, I’m overwhelmed by the media, I don’t want to do media right now, but Marshawn Lynch people joke about the fact that he said, I’m just here so I don’t get fined. And they assume Marshawn Lynch is brash. He’s this kid from the inner city. He’s just being Marshawn. It’s just Marshawn being Marshawn. Was it? Or was it Marshawn saying I wanted to protect my peace because I’m sitting up here in front of this media and all they’re doing is asking me about flaws that I may have that are going to be exposed by this defense I’m facing. Maybe I want to keep myself in the most positive light going into the biggest game of my life. So I’m happy that it’s finally taking the main stage right next to the main stage of actually playing the sport. You know, and you look at the NBA, they have guys that are advocates forward in recent months. Lane Johnson for the Philadelphia Eagles. Calvin Ridley for the Atlanta Falcons. These guys are standing up and saying there’s a lot going on and I don’t know how to get through the next day or the next week without addressing it.
Gabe Howard: But sincerely, can you see it from the fan’s perspective? Can you see how they would be annoyed by that?
Nate Burleson: It would be unrealistic for me not to understand how a fan can sit back and not feel validated by their feelings of, OK, you’re an athlete, you’re getting paid a ton of money. And some of that money, you can say, comes from me as a fan because I purchase jerseys and I buy season tickets and I support you wholeheartedly. I am as invested financially and mentally and physically as anybody else. And you’re telling me that you want to take a break during the season? I want to see you guys win this weekend. I want to see you guys go after the Championship. You know, a fan might say, Well, you’re paid to not only perform but you’re also paid a ton of money to deal with some of these issues that come along with being a professional athlete. I get that, I understand it, and I think that’s where we get lost in conversation. Things get lost in translation because if I’m willing to say an athlete needs a break whenever it may be, I also have to understand that fan that says, Wait, wait, wait. But you paid to kind of deal with the stuff that most people can’t deal with. It doesn’t that come along when you sign your name on the contract for being a professional athlete? In theory, it does. But once somebody breaks down mentally, it can be catastrophic not just to that player, but to the team. So I ask a fan, would you rather have an athlete power through something, then ultimately fail you in the end because they didn’t take care of themselves or address their mental health and be better off for your squad?
Gabe Howard: Whenever there’s a high profile suicide, social media just lights up with why didn’t they say anything? Why didn’t they ask for help? We would have been there for them. Yet when somebody does say something like, for example, last year during the Olympics with Simone Biles, she said something she did what everybody on social media said to do, say something and get help, say something and get help. And social media lit up and just vilified her as it. It’s so incredibly hypocritical. She did it right. She followed the advice of social media and it was brutal. It was brutal.
Nate Burleson: It was brutal. I, you know, I got on TV and I said, you know, for all of those. Men and women in positions of influence, most of them work. They work for publications or local sports stations and news sites for all of those who attacked Simone Biles and had that. That negative energy and they were just throwing it her way. I looked in the camera and I said, Why don’t you keep that same energy when she stood up for sexual assault? And in her and her teammates and other gymnasts stood up for themselves. Where’s your voice at now? You’re right, there is this hypocritical stance that people take or they have selective outrage. They were willing to attack Simone Biles because she felt like she was not only going to hurt herself or hurt her team’s chances to win if she continued to compete and people made her a villain. And this is a girl who started a young age dominating in the sport, some say the greatest of all time and did it in pressure moments, time, time and time again. And we put a cape on her, put a cape on her and said, you know, she is a hero of this nation. She stands for what this country believes in and we support her. And then years later, we, or they, I don’t want to say we, they snatched that cape off and turned her into a villain.
Nate Burleson: I didn’t understand that. And people don’t understand the power of their words. You may think that athletes are completely removed from what is being said so they don’t hear it or what is being written, so they don’t read it, but it’s untrue. Athletes see and hear everything, which most athletes watch and read the paper, read publications, go online, check out the blog sites and articles that are wrote about them. Or they hear it secondhand. But when it comes to my mental health, I encourage all athletes to put on blinders. Don’t look at people that are trying to distract you from your end goal. You know, when you’re running a marathon, you don’t pay attention to everything that’s going on around you. Matter of fact, you look straight ahead and you focus on the goal.
Nate Burleson: It’s the same thing with your mental health. Put those blinders on. And you know what? Put the earplugs in too. And take them out only when they’re listening to somebody that’s willing to help you. Somebody that is there to help you navigate through the troubled waters. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody does. The odds are people that are talking about you and your journey is going to be a large percentage that don’t understand it. So, you know, connect with those that do. And that’s what athletes are doing now, and that’s I think that’s the positive of social media too. We know that there’s pockets of social media that are the worst of the worst. Just negative people that sit back and literally live to ruin people’s day. But there are others out there that are there for your support system. Choose your energy wisely, plug into the sources that give you life, and it’s hard for athletes. It wears on us like a cologne or a perfume. And I’ll just tell athletes, don’t spray it on you. Don’t even read it. So I block immediately. I don’t even give it a second chance to sit in my life. Because if they choose this moment to take a shot at you, most likely they’ll do it again. I don’t think they necessarily deserve to tweet you again or reach out to you, DM you. I just feel like we have to protect our own peace.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back discussing mental health and athletics with former NFL player Nate Burleson. We’ve touched on what the fans can do, be more understanding and we’ve touched on what the athletes can do to be more open and address their mental health and not let it linger. Now let’s talk about what the leagues can do. What would you say to like the NFL and the NBC and even like the Olympic Committees to address the mental health needs of their athletes so that we’re all working together because they, frankly, they have in many ways the most influence over all of us?
Nate Burleson: I would say welfare checks and not just on the athlete. But I do feel like they should make welfare checks mandatory, just a simple check in and listen, if everything’s going right in your life, it’s fine. You just walk in for a couple of minutes. You look at who’s ever in charge and the athlete walks in and says, Hey, I’m doing great. Life is good. You know, my job is awesome. You know, I’m feeling the best I’ve ever felt in years. Cool. All right. Have a good one. Next guy comes in. Next woman comes in. I’m going through it. Thought about some things I never thought about. I don’t know how I go on. Close the door. Let’s sit down and talk for 30 minutes, 40 minutes an hour, whatever it is. So I feel like athletes should be required to have welfare checks, but then apply that to everybody else. Apply that to the people in charge, to the coaches, to the gyms, the owners, the execs, even individuals that work in the front office. Now, of course not saying that somebody that is going through something is going to be honest in the moment.
Nate Burleson: But if you have multiple welfare checks talking to multiple young men and women, maybe somebody speaks sooner and the ball can get rolling, rolling sooner. And you can possibly save some of these young men and women going through the trauma that they went through. And have somebody on site. Therapy shouldn’t be a secondary action. It should be the first option somebody has. It shouldn’t be an individual speaks up, they have a breakdown, now let’s go find a therapist or go find someone who can talk to or she can talk to. It should be on site. There should be one on every staff. You know, I commend Brandon Marshall, who is a friend of mine. He speaks on this quite a bit and he did in the league. At one point, he had a therapist there on site and was walking around with him while he was going to lunch. Now imagine that. This is a big, strong guy. Six four, six five, 230, muscles everywhere. One of the best at his position, and he’s walking into the lunchroom with 50, 60 other guys. Bravado and ego just fills the facility and he walks in, purposely, with his therapist because he wanted to show that there shouldn’t be a taboo around somebody trying to take care of themselves.
Nate Burleson: That should become the norm, where it isn’t weird. Where it’s like, Hey, how are you doing? Oh, that’s your therapist? I need to get her number because I got some things that I’m going through. And nobody breaks stride. You don’t all look over like the record stopped, you know, you know, you don’t drop your spoon. You know, maybe a couple of other guys say, Hey, me too. Hey, Brandon, I’ll get her number after work. Hey, thanks. Good to see you. Because we treat everything else like that. An athlete can walk in with his personal shopper, a guy who sold him a car, his jeweler, a guy who’s making suits for him and every other athlete. Hey, man, let me get his number, I’m thinking about buying this or know what? I wanted to give my wife a gift for a birthday. Or, Hey, you know what? My son just turned 17. I’m looking to buy him a car. Can I get his number? It’s like we’re OK talking about any other service, except for the service of our souls in our mental health. So I just think that should be what all of these organizations should adopt moving forward.
Gabe Howard: I would absolutely love that and listen as a sports fan, I’m always, you know, on your and shows like that and all of the other sports, just someone is like, OK, watch this. Do you notice that his hair dips to the left before he kicks the ball? That means he’s going to shank it. They got to work on that before that becomes a problem. I mean, we just, we have all of this detail. It’s like notice how he winks slightly before he shoots the ball. They better fix that before playoff time.
Nate Burleson: Yeah, right.
Gabe Howard: But yet for mental health, you hit the nail on the head. A crisis happens and everybody’s like, we didn’t see it coming.
Nate Burleson: Right.
Gabe Howard: On earth did you not? This person lives under a microscope. Practically. You notice everything else about the athlete. But not mental health.
Nate Burleson: People choose to ignore what they can care less about.
Gabe Howard: Exactly. Exactly, and we need to care about it, because, look, maybe you’re cynical and you don’t care about the athlete, I think that’s the wrong position. But look, let’s take this one back. People look up to these athletes. It’s our entertainment. It becomes the news cycle for 24-48 hours whenever there’s a crisis or a tragedy, and it impacts real people and like you said about your friend who walked in with a therapist. There is somebody listening and it’s going to think, Huh? I mean, if he can have a therapist, I can have one. And that’s going to make a profound difference on that person’s life. It really is modeling the way, and I appreciate what you’re doing to model the way one. I do appreciate you doing it for the athletes, but I also appreciate you doing it for the millions upon millions of people who are watching the athletes and think, huh? I mean, if that person can be honest about it and get help, I can get help too and that’s literally going to change lives or literally change lives.
Nate Burleson: No doubt about it.
Gabe Howard: Mr. Burleson, well, I am so happy to see people at your level and athletes for some reason, especially athletes, address mental health and it is becoming more common. But all in all, it is still pretty hush hush. What made you personally speak up?
Nate Burleson: You know, when you hit a certain age. You are very honest with yourself about the highs and lows of your life. I can look back on certain moments throughout my athletic career, and that was a fun time, whether it was a team I was on. The camaraderie we shared on and off the field, a certain touchdown, a game winner, you know, an interaction with the fan, a certain stadium I played in, the smell of the grass in the playoffs. Just these pockets of a euphoric feeling. You know, I can identify those. But on the flip side of that coin, at this age, I can also identify and be realistic about moments where I was in pain, and it wasn’t physical. You know, when I was dealing with a darkness or I was digging myself into a hole and I realized I’m going to have to either keep digging and I’ll never get out or I’m going to climb out of here and find some peace. And I think that’s why I wanted to be honest because, you know, when I’m honest about the struggles that I go through.
Nate Burleson: A kid that looks up to me will do the same thing. I can care less about being called a hero. I could care less about being called the best receiver. You know, I used to love those things. I used to appreciate those titles. I’m a Leo. I love praise and compliments, you know, and that’s a big part of who I am. But at this age, I’d rather have a kid, somebody that looks up to me, even an adult that has a certain appreciation for me as a former athlete and media personality. I’d rather have them identified with the transparency that I show about taking care of oneself. And that’s why. Because it’s all fleeting, right? Like my athletic accomplishments, they are fleeting. One, because the older I get, the less athletic I am. So I can’t even identify with that. And then you know who you were on the field, it will be surpassed by somebody that’s better. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s going to be a better athlete. There already are. In the same jerseys that I wore, wearing the same numbers that I wore. All the records that I had in college.
Nate Burleson: The records I’m going to have in the league, they’re all going to be broken. So if what I did on the field will eventually be somewhat forgotten because of the circle of life within sports. What am I doing that matters? Because this is all surface level entertainment, the touchdowns that scored, you know, the entertainment on TV, it’s all surface level. Now some stories I touch on CBS Mornings, of course, like that stuff hits home and it’s heavier and that stuff resonates. But I’m just talking about the surface level things that people may know me for. Oh, he’s a nice guy on TV. I’ve seen him talk about sports, and he scored some touchdowns. That is a very surface level interpretation of what I’ve brought to this world. Now, if I lean into that, that’s all people would know me for. But if I’m honest about my life. That can help people change their lives, and I’d rather be remembered for that. I like it when somebody tells me about how good I was on the field. I love it when somebody tells me how I changed their lives because of something I said. That right there is what matters most.
Gabe Howard: Well, thank you, thank you, thank you so much for being here and for all of our listeners. Thank you for tuning in. Please check out all Mr. Burleson’s stuff. He is huge on CBS. And while he likes that, he’s also huge in the mental health world and he loves that. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can buy a signed copy with free show swag, or learn more about me by just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Please follow or subscribe to the show, it is absolutely free. You can get it on any podcast player. And hey, do me a favor and recommend the show to a friend, a family member, whether it’s on social media, send them an email, or hey, good old fashioned word of mouth. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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