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We need to talk about Antonio Brown

We need to talk about Antonio Brown.

We’re not saying he has dementia. We’re asking - would change your perception of his behaviour if he did?

A little recent background for those who may not follow football closely. In the offseason Brown, the superstar Steelers wide receiver and Dancing With The Stars alumnus, was traded away from the only team he has ever known. Brown became a member of the Oakland Raiders, made a lot of headlines in the football world for all the wrong reasons. After attacking the general manager he was cut by the Raiders. The Patriots signed him despite the glaring red flags, because he remains maybe the most talented receiver in football. One game later, he became such a distraction that they cut him too.

A brief list of incidents in the past few months: Brown burned his feet in Paris, then seemed to delight in showing them off to the world on Instagram. Then missed practices, absences from training camp, and the sharing on social media of the fines he received as a result. In those posts, he seemed to indicate that his new team ‘wanted to hate him’. This feud with management escalated until he had to be restrained by a teammate from physically attacking general manager Mike Mayock.

Cut by the Raiders, he signed with the Patriots just as two very serious sexual assault allegations were coming to light. He made it into one game, caught a touchdown, and looked as though he would pick up right where he left off as the best receiver in football. Then the Patriots had enough, and cut him as well. This could have been about the sexual assault allegations, or a combination of things. The Patriots will never say. Brown has now gone after Patriots owner Robert Kraft on social media, and says he is finished with football forever.

Through this all though, the most worrisome controversy might have been the one over Brown’s helmet. The NFL has been showing a stronger commitment to protecting the heads of its players in recent years, and this year banned helmets that didn’t meet the new standard they set for head protection. The only player in the entire league to fight this was Antonio Brown. He refused to give up his older, less safe helmet, and even threatened to retire rather than get a new one. Eventually, he backed off and chose a newer, safer helmet.

That’s your head. That’s not something to mess with. The reason the NFL is so concerned with protecting the brains of their players is something called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Repeated blows to the head can lead to brain injuries that become evident gradually, over a number of years. One of the symptoms of CTE is dementia, which can manifest itself in many ways.

For running back Frank Gifford, it created memory loss and impaired judgement. For linebacker Junior Seau and safety Dave Duerson, CTE caused confusion, disorientation and deep depression. For wide receiver Chris Henry, it led to judgement and impulse control problems which led to many run-ins with the law. These culminated with his death after an altercation with his girlfriend, at the age of 26.

CTE can’t be diagnosed until after a player dies. There is no test to determine whether it is the reason a player is exhibiting bizarre, aggressive, or out of character behaviour. And this is why we want to make it clear that there is no way to know if Antonio Brown is suffering from CTE.

The question we want to pose, though, is this. Would it change the way you approached him as a coach? A general manager? If someone at your workplace suddenly started to behave differently than they had in the past, how would you respond?

This is the exact situation faced by thousands of people who have younger onset dementia. This is defined as dementia that begins before the age of 65, but it can start as early as the age of 30. When the symptoms begin, they might seem benign. A missed meeting here, a botched deadline there. These are things that can often be explained away, and we all tend to find ways to do just that. Maybe she’s just under stress. Maybe there are problems at home, or she’s worried about an ailing parent.

As the symptoms progress, however, there will come a point where poor work performance and strange behaviour can no longer be denied or explained away. And at that point what happens? What do you, as an employer, do? Usually, you try to find another explanation. Maybe it’s drug use, or heavy drinking. Maybe it’s a mental health problem. You, as a good employer, try to find a way to help your employee through whatever their problem might be. But that employee is still young, and dementia is likely the furthest thing from your mind. And, in point of fact, the furthest thing from theirs as well.

What we’re hoping to do here is put dementia top of mind for you. It’s rare, at the age when people are still in the workforce. But it happens. And when it does, it’s devastating for both the worker and their family. More often than not, it leads to that worker being fired long before they receive a diagnosis of dementia. This robs them of their prime earning years, adding to the financial burden that results from dementia in the first place.

We don’t want you to be able to diagnose dementia, but we are hoping that you can learn to spot the signs. Only by recognizing the signs and acting on them can people with younger onset dementia begin to come to terms with the condition. The earlier they are diagnosed, the earlier they can find the supports and the people who can help make their coming journey a more comfortable and happier one. And it also gives an employer more options, knowing and understanding the actual situation.

With Dementia Friendly training, not only can you learn to spot the signs and symptoms of a variety of dementias, you can also learn how to deal with them and what steps to take. It’s a scary idea none of us want to confront. But with a one-hour free training session, you’ll be equipped to at least face the situation with the proper tools and a quality support system.

That brings us back to Antonio Brown. This is maybe the best receiver in the game, who could be the missing piece that turns a solid team into a Super Bowl contender. And this is happening in the corporate, heartless NFL after all. Brown is as much an investment as he is a person. And even the Patriots, the most cold and business-minded of all teams, have decided he isn’t worth the risk.

In treating him like that kind of high-value investment he is, the Patriots could have ended up investing in Antonio Brown as a person. Doing everything they could to help him find supports. Whether those were physical or mental health assistance, the team would have been likely to pour a ton of resources into getting him healthy and well-adjusted. The one thing they can’t help with, however, is CTE. Because unlike most dementias there is no test for CTE and no way to determine its existence while a player is still alive.

We hope that it is not CTE, and that Antonio Brown is experiencing something else that will not produce devastating long-term effects. And again, we must emphasize that we have no idea what his condition might be. All we’re asking is that you put yourself in that position – the position of the player, the coach, the GM, the teammate, the owner. And ask yourself, what would you do?


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