“Who is going to step up?”
How many of us recall this trite saying from our gruff high school coach? We winced every time he muttered these well-worn proverbs. But the Ol’ Ball Coach was right — just in a different context.
As diehard fans, our attention is misplaced. We can dissect a player’s batting average against left-handed relievers during Tuesday day games. We can analyze a shooting guard’s player efficiency rating against the woebegone Sacramento Kings. We can recite the contractual language for a third-string quarterback. But if we deign to discuss sports and mental health, screamin’ Stan from the South Bronx swallows his microphone.
We remember Tracy McGrady. With his effortless game, McGray was an explosive scorer for the Raptors, Magic, and Rockets. In fact, he twice paced the NBA in scoring. Legendary Kobe Bryant called him his toughest opponent. Underneath the glitzy veneer, McGray likely succumbed to depression in his first NBA stop. Sleeping up to 20 hours per day, McGrady characterized his rookie year as “hell.”
For most of us, sports is an escape valve — an opportunity to jab your city’s loathed rival over a couple beers. We follow sports, in part, because it reinforces our collective identity; we are part of a family, team, and city. When your team claims a title, it reaffirms your collective identity. When your team swoons in the standings, you swallow your pride.
But sports, regardless of whether Stan from the South Bronx cares to admit it, have more of an impact and are more nuanced than the latest waiver wire pickup. Amidst the championships and collapses, there are teams and players that transcend the playing field. Through magnetism, fortitude, and timing, they challenge conventional wisdom. Jackie Robinson stared down institutional racism. Magic Johnson redefined HIV/AIDS. The Miami Heat plunged into America’s multilayered narrative of race and justice.
Need further evidence that sports reflects societal cleavages? As indignation over single fatherhood reached a fervent pitch, Sports Illustrated released its infamous “Where’s Daddy?” cover chastening high-profile athletes. As the gay marriage debate raged across America, openly gay Michael Sam sought a roster spot in the hyper-masculine NFL. Spanning the Vietnam War to gender equity, professional sports has precipitated societal trends and, arguably, policy reforms.
The exception: mental health. On mental health reform and awareness, the four professional sports leagues have adopted a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach. Roger Goodell, the NFL’s powerful commissioner, has expressed more concern about protecting the NFL shield than employees’ mental health. When the topic is broached among players, they are more guarded than Bill Belichick during a press conference. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall is one of the few professional athletes to divulge his mental health struggles. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, he has partnered with the Project 375 Foundation, a mental health advocacy organization. Marshall has chided the NFL for its inaction.
Here’s the irony: In the extremely competitive sports world, professional athletes employ sports psychologists to prepare for high-pressure contests. When an athlete visits a sports psychologist to “get his mind right,” isn’t this a natural segue to discuss anxiety and strategies to manage it? Think of how many kids are plagued with mental health issues and the impact a sports superstar would have. The opportunity for a high-profile athlete to fill the mental health void is there. He (or she) would earn media plaudits, endorsements, and public admiration. The time is yesterday.
“Who is going to step up?” the Ol’ Ball Coach asks. There are 42 million Americans in the huddle nodding in agreement. The shot clock is ticking. Consider this your two-minute warning.