This weekend was full of surprising NFL news, but nothing was as shocking as Brandon Marshall’s unlikely ascension to the title of The NFL’s Most Interesting Man. Before publicly disclosing that he suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Marshall was seen quite differently, and was sometimes thought of as a bit of a troublemaker. By sharing his diagnosis, though, Marshall has given some context to his lengthy and colorful history of legal scrapes and transformed himself into the league’s least likely feel-good story.
Coming forward about having an illness characterized by "long term patterns of unstable or turbulent emotions" doesn’t excuse some of the more rotten items on Marshall’s spotty record. There are no valid excuses for driving while impaired or physical altercations. Suddenly, though, Marshall isn’t just the latest in a long line of jerky wide receivers. He’s someone with a serious mental illness who is trying to get better.
By discussing his condition, Marshall made himself the face of BPD. Marshall says he came forward to help raise awareness of the condition, and that's a noble, daunting task. Research estimates that the condition that affects 2 percent of the adult population. That’s north of 4 million people in the United States alone. Before Marshall came forward, the most famous portrayal of BPD was arguably Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction — not exactly the world’s most even-handed depiction of mental illness.
Marshall now offers a counterpoint to those cinematic hyperboles. He’s not boiling bunnies; he’s among the most talented and successful people in his chosen field. His off-field tribulations have seemingly been in line with BPD patients’ tendency "to take impulsive actions and have chaotic relationships," but now he’s working to get himself healthy and remove some of the condition’s stigma. How could you not root for that guy?
Of course, not everyone will. Although other athletes have shared their struggles with depression or social anxiety disorder, Marshall is on his own when it comes to BPD. While that singularity means his disclosure is brave and fascinating, its uniqueness also makes it incredibly risky.
It would be lovely to think that fans would take a sympathetic view of Marshall’s disorder, but that scenario seems unlikely. Nuance and subtlety probably won’t be the defining traits of the road crowds Marshall will face this season. The odds aren’t good that some fan will yell, “Hey, Marshall, way to bravely seek treatment and raise awareness of a misunderstood illness!” On the other hand, hearing, “Hey, Marshall, you’re nuts!” is a foregone conclusion.
Boorish fan behavior is a given in this kind of situation. It’s unfortunate, but some people are jerks, particularly when they’re sauced up on stadium beers. The more noxious fallout from Marshall's sharing his condition will be the inevitable attempts by NFL analysts to ascribe any dips in his on-field performance to his BPD. Marshall can no longer just have a crummy game. Instead, he’ll have a symptom.
I’m hard-pressed to think of a sportswriter or football analyst who is also a board-certified psychologist, but some will undoubtedly channel Sigmund Freud the first time Darrelle Revis shuts down Marshall. And what's more: A private, personal illness will become fodder for fantasy analysis. (“Brandon Marshall’s got BPD, so you might want to avoid him in your PPR leagues!”)
The good news for Marshall is that the National Institutes of Health is guardedly optimistic when discussing the outlook for BPD patients, noting that patients often gradually improve with long-term talk therapy. Marshall has already pulled off the improbable transition from one of the NFL’s least likable players to arguably its bravest and most fascinating. Now let’s hope he can keep himself in that “gradually improving” category.
Ethan Trex is a Contributing Editor for mental_floss and co-creator of the blog Straight Cash Homey.
Previously from Trex:
Mark Moseley and the 1982 NFL Season: A Case Study in Weird