In the Land of Political Correctness and Public Niceties, three of the last unprotected groups are fat people, famous people, and athletes. Watch shows that expose and exploit like “TMZ” and “The Biggest Loser.” Listen to stand-up comics and drive-time radio hosts. Pay attention to behavior displayed under relative anonymity at sporting events and Internet discussion forums. It is America at its ugliest.
For people who fall into those unprotected groups — at least the latter two — privilege is often their only sin. For celebrities and athletes, seven- and eight-figure salaries are viewed as shields from regular human frailty and barriers to basic sensitivity. Think about when you criticize an Eddy Curry or a Randy Moss, and how often you begin with money talk. “If I was making $11 million a year…” or “For $6 million, he needs to …”
Kenny McKinley wasn’t fat. And relatively speaking, he wasn’t famous. But as an athlete, he was part of a culture where certain weaknesses just don’t fly; depression and suicidal thoughts among them.
Nobody knows exactly what drove McKinley, the 23-year-old Denver Broncos wide receiver, to shoot himself in the head on Monday. Nobody knows exactly how he was feeling. But I would make an educated presumption that, as a grown man and as a noted athlete, he believed he couldn’t talk to anyone about those feelings.
After all, he was a pro football player. All-time leading receiver at the University of South Carolina. Six-feet, 180 pounds of natural athleticism honed into millionaire potential. He was living the good life. So what could possibly be so wrong? As it turned out, more than anyone knew. And now we have to wonder: How many athletes can identify with McKinley’s decision to end his life?
I used to think depression was bullshit. The first time I heard the term attached to a man I perceived too strong for that was when NBA veteran Kendall Gill, then playing for my Seattle Supersonics, was diagnosed with clinical depression in April of 1995. I was 13 years old at the time, and I remember scoffing at the reports. Then I saw men my father’s age — men who’d schooled me in the art of forgetting how to cry — who had experienced enough life to perhaps comprehend Gill’s situation, call Gill a bitch. “Quit crying and play ball. You make $5 million, what do you have to be depressed about?”
Just with my hometown NBA team alone, similar situations of supermen displaying human emotions happened with Shawn Kemp (upset over his contract, he forced his way off the team), Vin Baker (alcohol abuse), Gary Payton (routine moodiness) and Rashard Lewis (crying on NBA Draft Night). Most of the time, they were ridiculed or criticized. Even though “regular” folks complain about their jobs all the time — our salaries, our bosses, the imperceptible slights and various office drama — once you hit a certain tax bracket or possess a job most men dream of, your problems don’t matter as much. Michael Jordan dropped 38 with the flu. Paul Pierce got stabbed multiple times and came back stronger than ever. Derek Fisher drilled clutch three-pointers while his daughter faced a life-threatening illness. And you’re upset over … what, exactly? Shut up and play.
I didn’t know Kenny McKinley, so I don’t know what pressures he was under. I don’t even know if he was actually depressed. But I know something wasn’t right in his life. I know that he had a young son he had to take care of, and that it was looking like he would miss the entire NFL season with his second significant knee injury in a sport where contracts are not guaranteed and careers come and go like autumn rain.
I know that, as an athlete who had reached the highest level, he no doubt had to put in long hours, punish his body, lose friendships, ignore loved ones, and trust almost no one in pursuit of excellence. Those kinds of pressures can weigh heavy on a man, even if that man can squat 300-plus pounds or corral Dwight Howard under the boards. Four-four speed in the 40 or an explosive first step still cannot outrun a mind that’s playing tricks on you. Those same kinds of pressures will lead Wall Street brokers to take spectacular dives off rooftops, and blue-collar grunts to silently let themselves slip away inside a gas-filled garage. Athletes, no matter how rich or famous or gifted, are no less susceptible.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot that. (Or maybe we never considered it in the first place.) Lamar Odom of the L.A. Lakers lost his mother when he was 12, then lost the grandmother who raised him when he was 24. He’s held his deceased child in his arms. He’s been shot at in the neighborhood he once called home. Can we understand that certain images and thoughts may race through Odom’s head while he’s at work? Or do we just look at a 3-for-13 shooting stat line, or see him get out-rebounded by Glen Davis and call him a bum?
It would be an easier lump to digest should we find out over the coming weeks and months that Kenny McKinley had deeper, more label-friendly medical issues — like University of Pennsylvania lineman Owen Thomas, who killed himself earlier this year and was recently found to have a brain disease. If McKinley had some kind of chemical imbalance, even if it were Season Affective Disorder, or maybe a reaction to pain pills for his injured knee, his actions become easier to reconcile.
Because as it stands — lifestyles of the young, rich and talented leading to suicide — it reminds us that we’re all vulnerable to sudden, unforgivable sadness.