During the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the New York Jets on Jan. 2, Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown put on a spectacle. Brown ran off the field in the middle of the game, taking off his jersey and padding, along with his gloves and undershirt, which he threw into the crowd.
Brown claimed that he was injured and Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians still made him play, prompting Brown to walk off in the middle of the game. Coach Arians claimed that Brown never spoke to any trainers or doctors about an injury, and rather, Brown was upset that he wasn’t getting the ball. Arians then told Brown to leave.
Regardless of who is telling the truth in this situation, Brown’s reaction was alarming. This moment went viral on social media, prompting memes and commentaries from fans and celebrities. Behaviors like these are no stranger to Brown, who has been traded and picked up by three different teams in three years, due to dissatisfaction between both him and each program.
It wasn’t always like this, however. He played nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers without any major controversy until the 2018 season, his last year with the team. This begs the question: how can a veteran receiver go from being one of the best players in the league to being one of the most disgraced players?
Some think this was a stunt for attention, but others think it’s much deeper than that. Players get hit constantly in football, leading to both major and minor brain injuries like concussions. Brown himself was knocked unconscious during a game in 2016 due to an illegal hit. According to an article by Dr. Chris Nowinski, a neuroscientist and Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder, this injury constitutes a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and it is plausible that the injury could have caused his abnormal behaviors.
In addition, Nowinski believes it is possible that Brown may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degeneration of the brain after repeated injury. This means that each time a player is tackled, it can be detrimental to the health of the brain. Some symptoms of CTE are impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, mood swings, and paranoia, which develops into memory loss and dementia with age. However, these symptoms show up years after a brain injury, and this condition can only be diagnosed after death. Other athletes who have been diagnosed with CTE are Phillip Adams and Aaron Hernandez, who both exhibited erratic behavior during their lifetimes.
If Brown is not suffering from CTE, there are other possible explanations for his behaviors in the past few years. A 2008 study on psychiatric disorders and traumatic brain injury published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment revealed that personality changes like aggression can be common after a traumatic brain injury. Those who experience these injuries “can exhibit behavior that seems immature to others and can appear very self-centered. People also routinely experience increases in depression and mood swings,” licensed independent mental health practitioner and licensed clinical social worker Sara Pattavina Moulton said.
Even if Brown is not suffering from these conditions, it is important to look at the larger issue at play. Athletes are continuing to play their sports while exhibiting signs of mental health problems.
Traumatic brain injuries and CTE do not only affect football players. It can affect athletes of any sport and any age. The mental and physical impacts of even a minor brain injury are incredibly concerning. “In general, concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can certainly cause mood disorders like depression and anxiety, in addition to affecting cognitive functioning,” said Dr. Sean Mullendore, a sports medicine and family medicine physician in Bellevue.
In fact, a 2019 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 1 in 5 individuals can develop mental health issues up to six months after a minor injury and develop long term effects of brain damage if individuals do not receive follow-up care.
Receiving follow-up care is an important step in preventing further concussions or brain injuries. “Having more than one injury to the brain, including multiple concussions, exacerbates the possibility of emotional and cognitive problems following brain injury. It is definitely possible that a person might have an outburst because a brain injury can impact emotional regulation and self control in stressful situations,” Pattavina Moulton said.
According to Dr. Mullendore, losing time from a sport can be extremely depressing, comparable to the feeling of losing a best friend. “There is also evidence suggesting that athletes with underlying psychiatric conditions like anxiety, depression and ADD/ADHD are more likely to suffer concussions (and take longer for symptoms to resolve) than their fellow athletes who do not have psychiatric conditions,” Mullendore said.
Noticing when athletes are exhibiting erratic or abnormal behaviors and keeping them out of games can prevent further injury. Organizations like the NFL provide their athletes with immense support for mental and physical health, like mental health training and providing social workers and counselors to help both former and current players. However, not every athlete is part of an organization that provides these services, and some athletes ignore the signs and continue to play. Receiving the correct follow up care after a brain injury prevents further damage to the brain, along with wearing the correct protective gear.
As researchers learn more about brain injuries and their repercussions as time progresses and as engineers design protective gear aimed to sense injury, understanding these behaviors as signs of serious conditions and not as a joke can potentially save lives.