NFL launches wellness program for players

NEW YORK (AP) — In an offseason marked by Junior Seau's suicide and scores of lawsuits over brain injuries, the NFL on Thursday launched a comprehensive wellness program for current and retired players — including a confidential mental health phone line.

"There is no higher priority for the National Football League than the health and wellness of our players," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in an email Thursday to more than 11,000 players announcing NFL Total Wellness. "This service is here for you."

An outside agency will run NFL Life Line, a free consultation service to inform players and family members about the signs of crisis, symptoms of common mental health problems, as well as where to get help. Experts in suicide prevention and substance abuse are among those involved in developing and administering the program.

The website for the program also features special video messages from various NFL stars, including Brett Favre, Michael Irvin, Michael Strahan, Herschel Walker, Jevon Kearse and Cris Carter, urging players to get help and letting them know they are not alone.

Shannon Jordan, president of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a charity for NFL retirees who need health care, said the program is long overdue.

"Unfortunately sometimes it takes a tragedy to put something together quicker, but we're just happy that it's finally here and we'll keep expanding on it," said Jordan, who is part of the NFL's effort.

"There are a lot of pieces that still need to be worked out, but we couldn't be more elated to be able to refer guys to a program like this and hopefully save a lot more lives."

Goodell also sent an open letter to NFL fans outlining the program.

"NFL Total Wellness will empower players to make positive health decisions," Goodell said, "promote help-seeking behaviors in connection with behavioral and mental health issues; provide education on family safety; and enhance transition programs that help players adjust to new stages of life."

The announcement came as many training camps are getting under way.

It also comes just days after former Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler became the latest big name from the NFL's past to sue the league over head injuries.

Stabler is the first plaintiff among 73 listed in a federal lawsuit filed Monday in Philadelphia, where other cases involving some of the more than 2,400 NFL veterans suing the league were recently consolidated into a master complaint.

Like Stabler, the other retirees claim the NFL did not do enough to shield them from the long-term effects of repeated hits to the head, even when medical evidence established a connection between head trauma in football and health problems later in life.

Stabler, 66, claimed in the lawsuit he has experienced cognitive difficulties, including headaches, dizziness, depression, fatigue, sleep problems, irritability and numbness/tingling in his spine.

Seau's family recently requested that brain tissue of the NFL linebacker be sent to the National Institutes of Health for examination.

The former All-Pro died May 2 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 43, just 2 1/2 years retired from a career that saw him picked for 12 Pro Bowls.

His death had similarities to that of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest last year. Duerson left a suicide note, asking that his brain be studied for signs of trauma.

NFL officials said while Seau's death was high profile, the league's suicide numbers across the board are low. They said in the past 25 years there have been 13 documented suicides by those who played in the NFL.

Nonetheless, after Seau died, both the NFL and the players' union acknowledged more could be done to provide mental health services.

While not mentioning the lawsuits or deaths, Goodell's emailed letter noted that members of the NFL family are not immune to challenges all individuals face.

The Plaintiffs Executive Committee for the NFL concussion litigation said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the latest program lends credence to lawsuits against the league.

"The NFL engaged in a decades-long campaign of deceit and deception to actively conceal from its players the risks they faced from repeated head impacts," said the statement emailed to The Associated Press. "This latest initiative is admission of this fact. Ultimately, it will not provide the security and care these former players so desperately need."

Troy Vincent, vice president of NFL Player Engagement, said the NFL already had some programs in place but the confidential lifeline run by an outside agency is a step forward, as are efforts to take away the stigma associated with mental health issues.

The video messages emphasize that.

Irvin, in a poignant message filmed last month, addressed his "brothers" and urged them to be open.

"We are part of an NFL family," Irvin said. "We do have to look out for one another the way we did on the football field. ... We have to share with one another ... but we don't talk. We shut up and ... we implode. We put ourselves in isolation and that's the worst thing you can do."

Thursday's announcement came following a meeting at NFL offices attended by Goodell, Jordan, Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. Surgeon General, along with Vincent and Robert Gulliver, NFL executive vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer. Vincent and Gulliver will direct the program.

Satcher has conducted 14 mental health forums for NFL retired players over the past two years and will coordinate more events across the country as well as online webinars.

Gulliver and Vincent are charged with establishing an advisory board that will include former players and coaches and medical professionals. The board in part will help develop a training program for peer counselors and transition coaches.

"We want to make sure we're providing the right services, that they're accessible and easy to use," Gulliver said.

The NFL Player Care Foundation also will build upon its national health screening program for former players, with Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Mike Haynes serving as ambassadors.

"The thing that's very important, and groundbreaking really, is also its inclusion of family members, having family members be able to call the line as well," said Timothy Lineberry, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and suicide expert in Rochester, Minn. "It's a confidential line, and we know that people are willing to call a confidential line to get help and get resources and be able to get somewhere where they can get help."