Remember Vincent Jackson

The NFL needs to improve its support for retired players

Michael Sicoli, Opinion Editor

“Did he get it? Touchdown, Vincent Jackson!”

Jackson’s 2014 score in a comeback victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, as announced by Thom Brennaman, will forever be in the mind of Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans. It was just one of his 57 career touchdowns, five of his over 9,000 receiving yards and just one of his 540 receptions. But damn, it was memorable.

He was a three-time Pro Bowler and a four-time Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee, the most respected award given to one player for their charity and volunteer work. His foundation, Jackson in Action 83, provided food and support for military families. As a son of a veteran, Jackson made it a priority to help those who were in a similar situation. He held baby showers with his wife Lindsey Jackson, and even wrote a series of “Danny DogTags,” children’s books to give guidance to kids in a military household.

Hotel staff found Jackson, barely a month after turning 38 years old, dead in his hotel room on Feb. 15. An autopsy is scheduled to determine the cause of death.

Illustration by Connor Lawless

It was crushing news that continued a long pattern of NFL athletes dying young after their careers concluded. Just within the past year, seven ex-NFL players, who have played at least three seasons, died before they reached their 50th birthday. Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro suffered a heart attack at age 28. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, a nine-year veteran, lost control of his vehicle and crashed in April nine days before his 36th birthday.

There are certainly outliers among the bunch. But these athletes have found themselves in a dangerous demographic. It’s past time that athletes receive recognition and treatment for their post-professional lives as too many struggle to transition.

Alcoholism is a common trend in professional sports, so much so that you can find “top 20 drunkest athletes” lists on popular sites like Bleacher Report. According to family members, Jackson suffered from “chronic alcoholism.” The family also believed that concussions played a part in the former Buccaneer’s death.

By no means should grown men be denied a drink. But these lists as well as societal norms continue to glorify alcoholism when it is a dangerous addiction. NFL fans still remember and clown quarterback Aaron Rodgers for not finishing his drink in one gulp at Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. Everyone can picture tight end Rob Gronkowski shotgunning a beer — it’s as iconic to the Gronk brand as spiking a football after a touchdown.

There’s a reason why Budweiser ads are consistently at the top of Super Bowl commercial rankings. Its commercials are incredibly well-made, but it also speaks to the culture of football in America which revolves around a can of beer. Haven’t you noticed that there is always a beer commercial on during a break segment of a game?

Alcoholism isn’t the only problem people like Jackson face. There’s the mental aspect of leaving the public eye. Many athletes suffer a “tunnel vision syndrome.” It’s when athletes cannot or will not visualize their career path after their playing days are over. This tends to lead to depression which is far too common in retirees. A 2018 survey taken by the Professional Players’ Federation (PPF) found that of the 800 former professional sportspeople surveyed, over half reported that they’ve had concerns over their mental well-being since retiring. Several told the BBC that they felt like they were losing their identities.

“It is not unusual to hear players speak about feelings of mourning and grief when they retire,” PPF Chief Executive Simon Taylor told the BBC.

There’s also a serotonin issue, in which players are constantly rising or maintaining their levels during their careers. Serotonin is a hormone that affects people’s mood, happiness and general well-being. It can also affect sleeping, eating and digestion. When that is decreased or cut off entirely, it can dramatically change body chemistry, according to renowned performance coach Bill Cole.

What makes this pattern all the more devastating is that this demographic that is above pity in the public eye. They were idolized and paid handsomely — two things that were on most of our wish lists growing up. To lose all that with likely a drastic career change can be testing for a person. It leads to the substance abuse mentioned above.

And substance abuse isn’t just alcohol. According to the Gateway Foundation, athletes run a higher risk of getting addicted to painkillers and other drugs to numb the pain from when they played. With CTE in football, there’s no fully conclusive way to diagnose it nor any way to treat it while an athlete is alive. Players like Jackson commit their lives to the sport only to be tossed aside once the league is done with them.

You could call it cold, hard capitalism. You can say that Jackson was well compensated and thus welcomed the health risks that came with each big contract. You can even reference the NFL’s Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan that has been gaining capital for years.

But that plan has a major caveat since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed last spring. The NFL cut off team contributions for their retired players through 2023, which accounts for hundreds of thousands of dollars designed for treatment. At a time when mental health is at the forefront of many conversations due to COVID-19, the NFL pulled away from the same people who made it immense profits.

Hug your family members a bit tighter. Make that phone call you have been putting off. Hotel staff saw Jackson motionless for two straight days, incorrectly assuming he was resting, before they became concerned that he was still in the same position on Feb. 15.

Check up on them. Show some love. It could save a life.

I will always miss Jackson for his contributions on and off the field. He won’t be forgotten — even after death he’s making a positive impact by donating his brain to CTE studies. But his death should serve as a call to action for sports leagues to better care for their athletes after they make them billions.