I’d like to ask a favor simultaneously of the Seahawks and the rest of the NFL, and even the broader big-time sports community, to which we devote a disproportionate amount of interest, affection and disposable income.
Because an innocent woman lies in a Seattle-area hospital after being beaten nearly to death by her boyfriend, who is now a former Seahawks player, and because mental-health issues for athletes are no longer taboo material for public discourse, I’d like to ask for an explanation about what teams and leagues do to ascertain whether a prospective employee is as fit psychologically as physically for a high-stress job.
I don’t know the answers. And I don’t mean to suggest naming names or violating privacy laws. But after reading in the Kent police report that the victim said Chad Wheeler “suffers from bi-polar disorder but has not been taken his medication recently,” I think it’s fair to ask what sort of mental-health screening pro and college sports teams do before they invite athletes into our communities.
It’s a question to ask now because there is no contention by Wheeler that he was innocent, or provoked or threatened in the episode Friday night at a Kent residence. We don’t have to wait months for a jury decision.
Wednesday on his Twitter account, he admitted the deed.
“Events happened over the weekend that transpired from a manic episode,” he wrote. “I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering that I have caused to (her) and her family.
“I apologize profusely for the turmoil that I have caused to my family, teammates and those closest to me. The most important thing right now is that (she) gets the care she needs and I get help. Both are happening.
“It is time for me to walk away from football and get the help I need to never again pose a threat to another. I cannot express my sorrow or remorse enough. I am truly ashamed.”
Wheeler owned up to the mental health problems, and the crimes. He’s leaving football and seeking treatment. No applause sign is flashing here, because the actions constitute the mandatory minimum. Confession does not heal the trauma, but it speeds the pursuit of justice.
After his arrest early Saturday and a posting Monday of a $400,000 bond Monday to gain his release from jail, Wheeler, 27, was charged by the King County Prosecutors office Wednesday: First-degree domestic violence assault, a Class A felony, and domestic violence unlawful imprisonment, a Class C felony, plus a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.
According to the prosecutor’s office, the standard range of sentencing for first-degree domestic violence assault is 93 to 123 months. If the defendant is also convicted of unlawful imprisonment, the first-degree domestic violence assault standard range increases to 111 to 147 months.
Wheeler is scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 9, when he will enter a plea. Prosecutors also asked a judge to require Wheeler be placed on electronic home detention, and wear an ankle monitoring device equipped with GPS monitoring.
The backup offensive lineman, a former first-team all-Pac-12 player at USC who went undrafted and played five games with Seattle in 2020, was previously categorized as a restricted free agent and technically not part of the team. But as the story spread nationally to much condemnation, the Seahawks finally issued a statement Wednesday on Twitter.
— Seahawks PR (@seahawksPR) January 27, 2021
Then they waived him. That’s about the extent of the team’s involvement now. But it’s not as easy to dismiss the police report.
The victim, 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds, told police that Wheeler (6-7, 310) ordered her to “stand up and bow to him. When she refused, he grabbed her by the neck and threw her on the bed.”
The police report states Wheeler “strangled (her) with both his hands for some time.” The report states Wheeler took one hand and “crushed it against her nose and mouth trying to stop her from breathing as he continued to strangle her with his other hand.” She said she lost consciousness.
Affter she regained consciousness, Wheeler was standing near the bed. She told police Wheeler said to her, “Wow, you’re alive?”
She stated she ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and called 911 and family. Wheeler picked the lock and entered the bathroom, where police found the pair, freeing the woman and arresting Wheeler after he initially resisted.
Since Wheeler’s tweet appears to end any argument about the facts of the case, and since the Seahawks have dismissed him, the question arises as to whether the NFL and the players union want this to be a one-off lost under the Super Bowl hype machine, or try to do something more pro-active.
Nothing is known publicly about Wheeler’s history with diagnosis and previous treatment, or whether his first team, the New York Giants, acknowledged problems. But the Seahawks’ history with mental health issues has a noteworthy public precedent: WR Percy Harvin in 2013-14.
In Harvin’s case, he had a fist-fight with fellow WR Golden Tate in a meeting the day before the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in New York, an episode the club managed to keep secret for more than a year.
Harvin in 2018 admitted that he had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder. But in October 2014, to avoid further team tension, the Seahawks, who traded huge treasure to Minnesota for Harvin, shocked the NFL when they traded him to the Jets for a conditional draft pick.
How did the Seahawks miss Harvin’s problem?
The sports world has begun to pay serious public attention to mental health. But most players unions, while supportive of the athletes, have been loathe to engage with franchise owners in creating any psychological wellness standards, for the obvious reasons that it is subjective, and easily abused by any owner who needs an excuse to unload a player no longer wanted.
But the idea here is not to create a standard for employment or performance, but a minimum screening process through independent clinics to help athletes who never considered the idea. If teams and unions can get past the standard mistrust and agree on the notion’s worthiness, a system can set up and discussed publicly to help remove the stigma long associated with seeking treatment, especially among rich, young, macho guys.
Harvin and Wheeler managed to work their way up the pro sports hierarchy with clinically diagnosable issues. Common sense says there are many similar stories.
As was mentioned, progress to a solution is tricky and touchy. But there’s a battered woman lying in a local hospital bed wishing someone had done something earlier. And the Seahawks have reasons to be leaders, because it sure looks crappy to be behinders.