Matthew Slater is one of the most tenured and trusted voices in the Patriots locker room, and as he enters his 14th season, he is actively looking ahead for both himself and his teammates. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, Slater joined a panel of current and former NFL players Wednesday night to talk about an often stigmatized condition -- addiction.
Slater was joined by former defensive back and current CEO of NFL Alumni Beasley Reece, former tight end and current CEO of Desert Hope Treatment Center Derek Price, and the first German native to play in the NFL Patrick Venzke, who is currently in recovery. American Addiction Centers hosted the event as part of their "Addiction Talk" series on Facebook Live, which aim to shine a light and destigmatize addiction.
Though Slater has not dealt with addiction himself, throughout his career he has witness former teammates cope with the stresses of life in the NFL, injuries, the uncertainty of making a roster and the stark changes when their playing days are done with drugs and alcohol.
"I can't tell you how many times I've heard that over the course of my career, whether guys drink almost nightly or doing recreational drugs to try to just take their mind off the things that are going on and the things that they're faced with. Unfortunately, that's a product of the culture that we live in, a culture that has told us for so long that as men we have to be a certain way," Slater said. "It's not okay to ask for help. It's not okay to talk to someone about what's going on with you. I think for so long we've kind of been stuck in that pattern, but it's nice to see now more athletes bringing awareness to the issues that they're facing off the court or off the grid iron and trying to have conversation and dialogue about this because I think that's the only real healthy way to attack some of these issues."
While addiction is a disease, Slater said in locker rooms, there are preventative steps that can be taken, especially for those who are struggle, are dealing with stressors or may be predisposed to addiction. For male athletes in particular, there is a notion that asking for help might be seen as weak. Slater said it is incumbent upon the leaders in a locker room to check in with others. The bottom line, he said, is caring about each other as people first and foremost.
"I don't care how you're performing on the field. What's going on at home? What's going on in your personal life? How are you growing as a man? I think locker room by locker room, team by team, league by league, we have to kind of set the tone. The leaders in those settings have to say, hey, it's okay to not be talking about basketball all the time or football all the time or whatever sport it is that you're playing," Slater said. "How can we just talk about how you're doing as a person? Look, that doesn't take a lot of effort. It just takes people who care. It takes people who are really invested in their teammates, their brothers around them."
Part of the struggle, at least for athletes, is that their "identity is so tied up" in being an athlete, Slater said. NFL players live with the awareness that the game could be taken from them at any moment, and only the lucky ones get to make the decision to walk away from it for themselves. For most, it is either a gradual trickle out of the limelight or over in a flash due to injury.
However, because of the high-profile nature of a career in sports, many who are struggling isolate themselves rather than seek help.
"Oftentimes when people are struggling with addiction, isolation is a huge factor in their struggles. There's a lie that you tell yourself that says, I'm the only one that's dealing with this," he said. "No one else is dealing with this, especially when you look at professional athletes … People are looking at you like you're perfect, like your life is all in order, like you're living the American dream so to speak. I think what we have to do, I firmly believe as a man of faith that we're meant to live life in community. Community is so important and plays a vital role in combating this."
Reece and his team with NFL Alumni have taken steps to support and be there for players once their playing days are done, but Slater is holding out hope that the league will step up and see the men who take the field every Sunday as just that: men.
"My hope has always been that the NFL in particular would start to see players is more than just helmets and pads and a number," Slater said.
The entire panel discussion is available on the American Addiction Centers Facebook page. You can find it here.