Justin Fields, the freshly drafted quarterback for the Chicago Bears, joins a pro team in need of a spark. The Ohio State standout is also joining a subgroup of professional athletes: those with invisible medical challenges.
One week before the 2021 NFL Draft, the league publicly released the fact that Fields has epilepsy. Within days, his overall ranking fell from second to 13th, leaving some sports analysts baffled.
Sportscasters went back and forth as to why the college star’s value seemingly decreased overnight.
On ESPN’s "First Take," commentator Stephen A. Smith demanded, “How does the season end and Justin Fields is universally recognized as the No. 2 quarterback in the draft outside of, after Trevor Lawrence and somehow, some way without a game being played, without an interception being thrown, without a turnover being committed, without an incompletion pass being thrown, this brother drops to arguably the fifth-best quarterback?”
Sportscasters went back and forth as to why the college star’s value seemingly decreased overnight. Reasons ranged from racism against the Black 22-year-old to his “repulsive stat line” against Northwestern or a change of heart by the 49ers. All plausible logic. But few wanted to talk about the epilepsy elephant in the room.
It’s a plight people like me with imperceptible handicaps face often. Health conditions can go unacknowledged, even as they are subtly still held against us.
In theory, an elite athlete openly disclosing their physical or mental impairment should garner praise. After all, this means they are succeeding despite challenges their peers may not have to handle. And not talking about such impairments generally has good intentions; people don’t want to appear discriminatory or define an athlete by their medical condition.
While not discussing Fields’ neurological disorder in the context of his falling draft stock may seem like the unprejudiced approach, it’s ultimately dismissive of just how remarkable Fields is. And it deprives other athletes (and nonathletes) with similar challenges of an inspirational and stigma-busting success story.
I used to be silent as well. My younger sister and cousin dealt with epilepsy from the time they were children, and I thought I was their biggest advocate. Yet my advocacy took the form of silence. I wanted my relatives to know I saw past their conditions; I wanted to make them feel “normal.”
But when I was diagnosed myself at age 32, I realized how damaging this approach can be. Epilepsy catapulted me into an elderly lifestyle, with a bedtime of 9:30 p.m. and the social calendar of a monk. When I’ve had a seizure and a friend brushes past it like I’m talking about the weather, I feel hollow. My condition doesn’t define me, but it does define the way I live. And that’s OK.
Epilepsy is a mercurial beast, with demands ranging from careful monitoring to debilitating neurological activity. It is also a uniquely individual condition, varying widely from person to person, seizure to seizure. The one consistency is that the darling anti-epileptic drugs are notoriously energy-drainers. Fields plays football with such excellence while taking daily AEDs, which should only make him even more of a distinguished and desired player, not less.
We’re comfortable asking about each other’s allergies or broken bones. But when it comes to disability, we have to get rid of our (sometimes well-meaning) societal code of silence.
Fields is not alone. Several professional athletes have recently bucked this system, becoming advocates for their health conditions and inviting discussion.
Fields is not alone. Several professional athletes have recently bucked this system, becoming advocates for their health conditions and inviting discussion. After her medical records were illegally released in 2016, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles has been speaking out about living with ADHD. When Charlie Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes mid-racing season, he returned and championed awareness of the condition. Two years into his NBA career, Larry Nance Jr. created a foundation for youths who also have Crohn’s disease — which he has lived with since he was 16 years old.
Biles, Kimball and Nance had already started their careers before opening up about their experiences. They had a safety net: an already proven track record of professional performance. After watching Fields’ draft stock drop, other athletes would certainly be forgiven for not wanting to be forthcoming with mental or physical limitations.
During a job interview or a date, I wonder when or even if I should tell this person about my battles with epilepsy. How much will my stock drop?
Fields’ epilepsy came to light before he started in the NFL. He didn’t have a dedicated fan base or professional career to use as proof that he can perform his job while managing a condition most people didn't even know he had.
The 11th pick in the draft, Fields may not have landed exactly where he saw himself a few weeks ago. But the Bears have shown their commitment — they gave up four picks, including next season’s first-round pick, to snag the QB. As a Chicagoan who is also fighting an invisible disability, I’m looking forward to welcoming him to his new home.