By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) I doodled a lot as a kid. All of my notebooks and folders and binders for school were covered inside and out with a complex array of simplistic images of favorite band names and imaginary characters I made up and sports stuff. Hours were spent in my bedroom or basement creating new logos and uniforms for my favorite teams or even expansion franchises.
To me, former Chicago Bears defensive end Alonzo Spellman looked exactly like how I would draw a football player out of midair. He was cartoonish looking with his frame and wingspan. I had never before seen a player who looked like he was formed with colored pencils on loose-leaf paper.
Spellman’s NFL career crumpled like a piece of paper, too. It was animated, but not in a fun cartoon way. Marked by early success and then erratic behavior, culminating with a 1998 police standoff in which former teammate Mike Singletary had to talk him down from doing something tragic, Spellman’s name today is usually associated with some kind of joke or bust consideration. That despite his being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which in the 1990s was still combative to many lips that preferred to label someone suffering from it with more comfortable terms like “moody” and “flighty” in polite archaic terms and other ones more profane and sexist at times.
While today the disorder is more widely recognized — 5.7 million American adults suffer from it — Spellman, with continued troubles with the law even as recently as last month, never shook the stigma of being “crazy” rather than ill even to this day. Like so many Americans with mental illness, Spellman didn’t have his case diagnosed until adulthood (the median age for bipolar diagnoses is 25) and was labeled often in mocking terms rather than concerned ones by fans and media that continue even with our increasing knowledge of the effects of football on the brain and psyche (and, in fairness, Spellman’s issues can be linked to outside of and well before football).
I can’t help but see a parallel in the latest off-the-field news regarding San Francisco 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith, who on Sunday was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport for being “belligerent and uncooperative” after being selected for secondary screening and commenting that he had a bomb. Smith’s prior involvement with the law involved two separate DUI arrests, one with an additional marijuana charge, and three felony counts of assault weapon possession stemming from a party at his home in which he was stabbed and shots were fired.
The diagnosis Sunday on airwaves and the Internet was quick. “Idiot” or some other medical terms closely related to it. “Suspend him.” That will fix everything … or at least our comfort levels that have been made askew. Bang the drum on the sad state of how talent outweighs morality or something. Call out his polarizing coach for potential hypocrisy.
But former Bear Brendon Ayanbadejo took a different route, suggesting that we consider the possibility of Smith’s mental health. Before we look to punish and wash our hands of anther bad seed, might it be possible this person is sick and needs help? Maybe instead of casually tossing out derogatory labels like we did with Spellman, we might instead help a guy so that he does not go the way of a sad, almost annual joke.
Look at Smith’s pattern with alcohol. Police have said that it appeared Smith had been drinking prior to his arrest Sunday. Players have long used alcohol, marijuana and any number of nonprescribed ways of treating the NFL body that is often in constant pain in-season and offseason. Smith may be an alcoholic in a profession that has grappled with alcohol issues without really trying to make a medical connection.
Notice his alleged crimes. Repeated booze incidents, military grade guns and a bomb threat at the very worst place to say the word “bomb.” And with video of the most recent incident showing Smith claiming he did nothing wrong — he may actually believe that. To not look at those together as a possible sign of a man with serious mental issues rather than the always comfortable “thuggery” athletes are so often chalked up to seems a bit ignorant. Former teammates have tried to establish credibility for Smith, and while it’s rare for guys in the football fraternity to break bad on one another, even anonymous ones are calling him an otherwise good guy.
There has been an actual psychological analysis of Smith. It was done prior to his being drafted in 2011. A scouting service reported, “He has some past experience with getting into trouble and is a higher-than-average risk for this sort of behavior in the future.” Smith also scored below average on the Wonderlic and SIGMA motivation tests, for what those are worth.
I can’t affirmatively diagnose Aldon Smith with anything, but I can pause and be not so quick to label a guy after having seen the mislabeling of a player I grew up watching in Alonzo Spellman. Certainly, there’s a kid in the Bay Area with a doodle of the larger-than-life idolized athlete Aldon Smith somewhere in his or her bedroom, and maybe we should not be so eager to treat Smith like a cartoon instead of a flawed human being that could use some help.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.