Flashback Friday: Type 2 Diabetes in the NFL

It’s a nightmare scenario for a person who’s been newly diagnosed with diabetes: You’re fired after learning you have this chronic-yet-manageable disease. Everything the doctors told you about living a nearly normal life seems like a lie. Your visions and hopes for the future-already clouded with this scary medical news-darken.

What would you do? How would you react? Who would you turn to for support?

For football player Kyle Love, this nightmare became a reality. The New England Patriots defensive back lost his spot on the team after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes last month. Love had become important part of the Patriots’ defensive line over the last season, and according to the sports press, the prime reason for the move appeared to simply be the diabetes diagnosis.

The move was shocking. After all, a host of diabetic athletes-both type 1 and type 2-have competed successfully in the world of professional sports. What was different in Love’s case? How could this stand?

But before anyone could raise more of a fuss, the controversy seemed to resolve itself. The Jacksonville Jaguars snapped up Love, who had apparently started a successful treatment regimen. He started working out with the new team and looking ahead.

This resolution, while no doubt reassuring for Love, allowed the story to end too quickly. For the kinds of questions raised by the treatment of Kyle Love should linger in the minds of all people with diabete, and all those who love them.Could this be our story, too? Could someone see only our disease, and not see us?

Behind the Scenes

In Love’s case, his diagnosis was preceded by a common symptom. He was losing weight. And for a player on the defense, where sheer body mass is important, this was cause for serious concern.

“Prior to the diagnosis, Kyle recently experienced unexplained weight loss,” said his agent, Richard Kopelman, in an interview with ESPN Boston. “But since being diagnosed and having altered his diet, Kyle has regained most of the weight he lost, is in good health, and was not limited in any way during off-season workouts in which he was engaged up until being told he would be released.”

The diagnosis came during a routine team physical, according to ESPN. But Love saw it as just another obstacle to be tackled.

“I’m a fighter,” he told the sports network. “I was always told that I wouldn’t be able to do something. School teacher telling me I would never be anything in life, different people telling me I wouldn’t make it to the NFL, and look where I am now. I don’t really listen to all that. If anything, it just drives me to go any harder and work even harder.”

From the sound of it, Love’s treatment has been relatively simple so far, although he didn’t reveal everything to the press. He did talk about tackling his diet, taking special aim at desserts and juice. As longtime diabetics know, both of those things can spell trouble.

Eating sweet things “was my downfall,” he told ESPN. He said he was a bit sad about giving up sweets, “but I know I need to get my health back up. If I have to cut off everything, then so be it.”

Love’s attitude seems exactly right. For many people diagnosed with diabetes, the disease can seem overwhelming. But professional athletes face daunting odds regularly, and they know that the only way to overcome them is to forge ahead. That’s a valuable lesson for all of us, whether we’ve had diabetes for a handful of months or for many decades.

But for all of the positive attitude and top-notch medical attention, Love’s team still cut him loose. And that’s where attempts to paint this as a simple story of one man overcoming the odds fall short. The fact that a professional sports team-with access to the best medical information money can buy-would react to a diabetic diagnoses by sidelining a player simply stuns.

Other Players

It’s important to note that both type 1s and type 2s have successfully played pro football. Then-Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, for instance, was diagnosed as a type 1 in 2008. Now with the Chicago Bears, Cutler is still playing.

Back in 2008, fresh from his diagnosis, he rhapsodized about his treatment in an interview with the Associated Press.

“I’ve felt great. I’ve felt 100 times better,” he said. “Just a difference now and four, five weeks ago is tremendous. It’s hard to explain what you feel like when your levels are at 400, 500, it’s different. You don’t have any energy, you don’t really want to do anything, you sleep a lot. It’s tough to deal with.”

That’s a common enough sentiment, too, at least for type 1s. The relief in knowing what’s wrong is often accompanied by simply feeling better. After months of not getting enough insulin, the body responds to proper treatment with a big boost in energy.

But Cutler acknowledged that many changes were ahead, especially as a football player.

“It’s a big adjustment,” he said at the time. “You’re 25 years old, you’re used to eating whatever you want, doing whatever you want. If you want to go out to lunch, go ahead and go. Now, you’re counting carbs and eating healthier and injecting insulin at the table. You’ve got to have your insulin, your needles, your glucose meter, yeah, it’s a big change. But it’s something you have to deal with.”

And Cutler isn’t alone. Mike Echols played for several pro football teams in the early to mid-2000s, and also has type 1 diabetes. Mike Sinclair, who was with the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles before becoming the defensive line coach of the Chicago Bears, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes toward the end of his playing career. And Jay Leeuwenburg, who played in the NFL for nine years, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12.
These men aren’t the only ones, of course. Diabetic athletes are found in multiple sports, often performing at the highest levels.

Looking to the Law

Yet we can’t forget Kyle Love. Despite these earlier examples, his team seemingly couldn’t look past his diagnosis. So what does the law say? Does it address people in his situation?

It sure does. Federal rules about workplace discrimination against those with chronic illness can seem complicated. But they’re based on a simple principle: Those with such an illness should be given the benefit of the doubt.
To put it simply: Not giving a job to someone who has diabetes just because they have diabetes is illegal. Firing someone who has diabetes just because they have diabetes is illegal.

There is one all-important caveat. The worker with diabetes must be able to do the job with reasonable accommodations. You can just barely imagine a job-a professional chocolate-eater, for instance-at which a person with diabetes might face real challenges. But for most positions, in most fields, both type 1s and type 2s shouldn’t have major issues.

What’s more, according to information from the American Diabetes Association, a patient’s A1c shouldn’t necessarily be considered either. An A1c may indicate someone’s risk for long-term complications. But on a day-to-day basis, it really has no predictive power about someone’s ability to do a job.

Employers don’t always know about the law, though. So it’s important for people with diabetes-and anyone else who lives with a chronic illness, for that matter-to be educated. A flier at diabetes.org/assets/pdfs/know-your-rights/employment/your-job-your-rights.pdf contains much useful information.

There’s no surefire way to avoid discrimination. Love’s case suggests that even in fields where diabetic people have excelled, there is still education and work to be done. And not everyone has the ability to find another job so quickly and easily.

So it comes down to us. We’re responsible for our health as diabetics, and we’re responsible for sticking up for ourselves at our jobs and in our day-to-day lives. We know what we’re capable of. We have to let other people know it, too.

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