NBA / Sep 22, 2010 / 1:30 pm

Requiem for the Athletes: Talent, money no shield for depression

Kenny McKinley

Kenny McKinley

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.

-Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206
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  • matthew

    this was beautifully written. Among the affluent or the ivy league groups(where this is also not accepted) i believe Brett Easton Ellis has really tried to chronicle this, that even the affluent have problems. . . and not being able to talk about them perpetuates the problem even futher.

    I’m currently reading The brief life of Oscar Wao, same sort of issue. Instead of trying to help someone with depression, its just not tolerated.

    We have certain heros in our lives, archetypes but trying to hold everyone to these men is insane. If reading dime and freedarko has taught me anything its that. yea mike dropped 38 points. Not everyone is Mike.

    I think it takes events like this to get people tlaking. But shit did fizzle out with john amechi and i thought that was gonna get the ball rolling.

    Interesting post.

  • Scott

    great piece. nice work AB

  • LMNOP

    Depression is a complex bitch. people confuse it with being upset or sad, then they look at someone with a nice lifestyle and say “what’s this dude upset about” or “i bin sad before but i never chose to put a shotgun down my throat” but its a mental illness, its more like an irrational hate than just a case of being down and a lot of people suffer from it without diagnosis because of all the stigma.

  • kingralf

    great article AB!

  • Eduardo

    Great great article Austin.

  • alex

    I like this one

  • http://getyourishbusted.net Chicagorilla

    @Austin

    One of the realist articles you ever wrote! I agree with you, there needs to be more compassion to certain things athletes have to go through.

  • Detroit Dave

    Great piece cuz.

  • atticusmitch

    Great Work. Its terrible that young man suffer enough to want to end his life. My prayers go out to his family and friends

  • JC

    Standing ovation, Mr. Burton.

  • kudz

    nah, they need perspective. i can complain about my job, but i do it to the guy next to me, in the same situation..im not gonna complain about my salary to a kid in a 3rd world country…if u get paid millions each year, its not sympathy u need, its perspective.
    if chasing ur dream made u lose all ur friends, then quit..u have enough cash to go back to college and get a desk job…not writing with conviction here, just offering another view, btw

  • Mark

    Great article Austin. Very insightful. Athletes, fat people, celebrities…we’re all human, we all have some desire to be loved, included…to want to share and connect with someone meaningful. It doesn’t look like Kenny had that outlet…or his human nature of being loved/accepted wasn’t being fulfilled.

    Humbling article.

    Thanks again for getting us talking.

  • the_don_mega

    nicely written AB

  • kwanza

    Very well written AB, liked the bball references throughout…it’d be nice to read more of these types of deeper, more meaningful articles.

  • control

    Good article AB.

    There are some people who are just flawed mentally. People who, regardless of what they achieve or experience in life, they are missing that something that makes them feel satisfied.

    It’s a weird thing that I believe is partly environmental in nature. Life right now is better than it’s ever been for humans in history. If any one of us who is sitting around commenting on Dimemag.com, were exposed to the living conditions that were considered average 1000 years ago, we’d lose our damn minds and most likely not be strong enough to handle it. The main thing at play is, how knowledgeable people are to areas of their lives that suck. 1000 years ago, the average person didn’t KNOW that life could be better, they were rocking that ignorance is bliss thing. Now a days, if you have an aspect of your life that sucks, it’s thrown into your face everytime you turn on your computer, tv or phone. Basically, the minor issues that suck in your life are magnified because it’s so much easier to see how someone else is living the “perfect” life compared to you.

    Also, some people are just self destructive, and will harm themselves regardless of what is going on. Great Chris Rock quote:

    “What happened to crazy?
    What, you can’t be crazy no more?

    Did we eliminate ”crazy”
    from the dictionary?

    Fuck the records. Fuck the movies. Crazy!

    When l was a kid, they used to separate
    the crazy kids from everybody.

    When l was a kid, the crazy kids
    went to school in a little-ass bus.

    They had a class at the end of the school…

    and they used to get out of school .

    Just in case they went crazy…

    they would only hurt other crazy kids.

    And we was all safe.

    We was all safe.
    Damn, the world’s coming to an end.”

    Sometimes fuckers just be crazy…crazy people do as crazy people is.

  • me

    This isn’t totally related to the football player, but it’s been on my mind anyway.

    I gotta say, “the price of fame” is real. I think celebrities and other millionnaires don’t take into account there’s certain things you have to give up for the privileged life. Especially celebrities, I don’t wanna hear ANY celebrity complain about a lack of privacy or getting annoyed at autograph seekers. Having those people want to see them is their ENTIRE JOB. If you pursue a livelihood that’s based on people being interested in you, whether it’s your new movie or you smooth jumper, all that intrusion comes with the territory, and if you can’t accept that then do something else. PERIOD. Otherwise, 20 million for 6 weeks of work (top grossing movie actors) is fuckin ridiculous.

  • James

    Hey man- athletes are humans too- that what people dont realize- this is a cold/cruel world- only way to get through it is with Jesus

  • control

    James

    How does a Jesus help you get through this cold and cruel world? I find that being colder and crueler than everyone else seems to help me succeed at life…but I’m open to an explanation of your method.

  • jryu

    great well written article.

    RIP mckinley and may everyone’s thoughts and prayers be with his friends and family..

  • WinDelRoj

    I understand depression. I understand that the man was probably suffering and not letting people know. But the ultimate tragedy in this is that the man had a child. A child without a father. It has become too common place now. If you need a purpose, a childs a pretty good one. Tragic. RIP Kenny.

  • Shiptar

    no fuckin way I’m depressed if i’m making that kind of money!

  • http://twitter.com/Chris_Barrio C Money

    I want to keep this short and say 2 things. One (1) that was well written and very honest. But… Two (2) Just the other day people were THROWING MO WILLIAMS UNDER THE BUS for stating how he feels (about his career and Lebron) and people in return called him a “BITCH” and to “stop crying!”
    If you CANT express your self and or reach out to talk to someone and you just kill your self i cant feel sorry for you. I can feel sad about the situation but not SORRY!
    I’m not a Mo Williams supporter/fan but if you believe in depression and all that shit then go console Mo Williams before he offs him self too. (and im very serious) and if you think im insensitive thats fine too.
    “I wear my balls on my sleeve”

    FOLLOW MEeeeeeeeeeeeee twitter.com/Chris_Barrio

  • iannyb

    Well done AB, hats off to you. Now who do we choose as the real AB??? Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bogut or austin Burton????????????????

  • morph

    I agree with almost everyone here, i guess, in saying: great article. only one minor correction: depression IS a form of chemical imbalance (most likely serotonin & dopamin)- so the “friendlier label” is there, it’s just that nobody is willing to use it.

    My question is rather: Where do we go from here? In hindsight we feel remorse if we said some nasty stuff about an athlete and then learn he suffers from depression (or anything else for that matter). So we need the athletes to come out, open up about their depression, right? except they stop being pro athletes after disclosing their depression – which owner will invest big time in a guy he knows having suffered from depression. depression is not a one and done thing, at least for most. most likely there will be more than one episode. and you won’t be able to produce on the court during that time.

    Do we blame owners for that? some of us might, but most will say it’s a smart business move: you don’t take avoidable risks. usually there are people willing to take the spot and the “troubled athlete” will be forgotten. lost in the news cycle.

    Again: Wheredo we go from here?

  • TD

    very nice article AB

  • bobby stew

    As a black man I can certainly say that culture and society often teach us to hide our emotins, especially those that relate to being sad, hurt or anything but angry.

  • Steve Nash

    its not about how much money you make… but how much pressure you go under to make that money

  • Taj

    Great article, AB!

    My girlfriend suffers from depression and at first it was difficult to understand why she was the way she was. But we dealt with it as I understood more and more how I could help.

    Athletes on the other hand have so much to deal with, family pressures, managers, etc. that they have no where to go because they are supposed to be the strong macho ones and they feel like they have no one to turn to like Austin said in fear of being ostricized..

    RIP Kenny Mckinley!

  • http://www.glidehoyas.blogspot.com Glidehoyas

    Austin, this story was greatly written and one of the best stories I’ve “ever” read and I’ve read many. I couldn’t have said or written this any better man. You put in all in a nutshell. I’m not surprised at your writings because when I met you you were a very intelligent, respectful and special young man and that led me to believe in you man. Once again, you made it easier for me to understand what you have written. I haven’t forgotten about what you asked about. Let’s Go Hoyas!

    Very Respectful,
    Kent

  • sh!tfaced

    realest shit in a long time. nice one, ab

  • Brooklyn Bulls

    There was never an official conclusion (not that i heard of) for Eddie Griffins fatal car/train wreck…suicide or drunken recklessness…..good read tho, i never thnk about or reallyeven cared about the well being of these guys who earn in 1 game wat it takes me 2 to 3 months 2 pull in

  • gilford

    Nice one AB!

  • Aussie Ric

    Austin, that was awesome.

    I’m with JC, standing ovation dude.

  • NappySupreme

    Nice piece…. thanks for the perspective.

  • KnicksFan84

    Austin, best work I’ve read from you to date! RIP Kenny

  • Marcus

    Damn this is definately sad, anytime an athlete dies it just sucks.

    Good writing Burt

  • Promoman

    I agree with the article except with Gary Payton & Rashard Lewis. Gary was pretty much cutting up during the last leg of his Sonics years. He would start fights with teammates and drag ass in practice. Rashard was hurt that he didn’t wasn’t drafted as high as he should’ve. As we can see, he recovered and became a star player. Gary & Rashard aren’t in the same class as athletes like Vin Baker, Shawn Kemp, Leon Smith, Eddie Griffin & Kenny McKinley when it comes to life problems.

  • http://bolapresa.com.br Danilo

    One of the most incredible posts I’ve ever read here. Amazing.

  • Mikey F Baby

    well written. Best Dime article in a minute

  • fLaVa

    best dime article this year!

    good job AB

  • Bakedbeing

    Add another to the chorus, great article. One more group who’s suffering open season right now are beautiful people, particularly women. If you’re a good looking, thin woman you’re supposed to have zero problems and take endless grief about ignorant takes on your eating habits.

  • chichindo

    Great article!! It’s easy to forget that these people are humans too. Thanks for letting us reflect about it a bit Austin. Depression is a serious problem.

  • TripleDouble

    superb article, AB!

  • H-man

    Haven’t been on Dime in a long time but was tipped off to this piece. Superb. It needs a wider audience. Hopefully the good folks at Dime / Bounce will make sure that happens. Regardless, kudos to AB.

  • qwerty

    nice article. one of the articles that make me still visit dime. very well written.

    yep, athletes are human as well, even thought they make a million dollars or more per year. money isnt everything. even you had loads of cash in your bank doesnt mean you are guaranteed to be happy.