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Monday, December 21, 2009
Basketball never mattered less

By Henry Abbott

His precise mental health issues are unidentified, but his troubles are plain to see.

Kirk Snyder's agent says the talented and athletic guard would like to return to the NBA. But the former Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Minnesota player first has to see what happens with an assortment of assault and burglary charges. He is alleged to have broken into a neighbor's house in the middle of the night to beat up a neighbor as he slept, apparently without provocation. He is alleged to have gotten into scraps while locked up. At one point a judge had to order that he be forcibly fed and medicated.

He has plead not guilty by reason of insanity to charges related to breaking into the neighbor's house.

Comforting, or not, is that many former NBA colleagues and co-workers say that he didn't stand out as especially crazy in the NBA (other than things like once, after being interviewed by a short sportswriter, telling media staffers he couldn't be around midgets). He met with a psychologist while with the Jazz, and no red flags were raised.

All of this information comes from Ross Siler's reporting in the Salt Lake Tribune.

The most worrisome part of the article is a quote from an anonymous GM, who tells Siler that NBA "players are under tremendous pressure not to admit they have problems."

It's not hard to believe that could be true. How could that not be so? If you can get out there on the court and produce, you're worth millions. Millions that matter to you, everyone in your family, your friends, all those ticket-buying fans in the stands, your employer and everyone else. If you can't get out there and produce, your current contract becomes one of the most unimaginable burdens in the entire business world. Can you imagine if your employer had to pay you millions not to work? And at the same time roster spots are finite and precious?

Look at the NBA's history of players with mental health issues. Off the top of my head -- Bison Dele (rest his soul), Kirk Snyder or Delonte West -- they all had people ready to say that the best thing is for the player is to get back to the jolly old routine of work. They're saying it now about Snyder. It could be true!

I just hope that in the event that's not the best thing, there's a system in place for that, too. The pressure of the NBA really may not be good for everyone. For all of its luxuries, the NBA is a very intense work environment. People on your team and others are gunning for your job. The media is on you if you screw up. All that money makes people act funny. And if basketball doesn't work out, in many cases there is not a good plan B. And there are precious few years to earn.

Not to mention, there is a very macho culture surrounding sports. Everybody plays hurt, you know? Why not people with mental health problems?

The NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement contains some protections (salary and otherwise) for players with mental disabilities. It's not like the league has been overly harsh. But the test of whether such a system is working would be what actually happens. Can players who need time for serious treatment get it? Has it happened? If a player under contract found themselves needing a few months, or a year, to get it together, I have to imagine it would be hard to get that time.

That de facto policy could be for the best for people dealing with regular life issues. Tough it out like the rest of us! But in those rare cases where people need serious help from mental health professionals, the "tough-it-out" system isn't going to work.