The mental health stigma in sports

The mental health stigma in sports

Photo Credits: AGGIE FILE

Vulnerability and sports rarely mixed in the past, but the outlook is positive

In sports, athletes are taught from a young age to have short-term memory. Forget a bad play or a bad game and move forward. Ignore the problem. Strictly from a sports perspective, it is a great mentality to have because the last thing someone would want to do is overthink a split second decision. It is something that should stop at sports—this method works for a game or a season, but not for the reality of life. 

Mental health is a crucial issue in the world, and for athletes it is no different. But, the sad truth is that when an athlete reaches a certain level in their profession, there are expectations: to lead a team, to be strong and not to let emotions get the better of them. Those same expectations lead some into greatness and lead some into their downfall. 

For Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott, the spotlight is always on him. As the star and leader of “America’s Team,” he is immensely popular and is closely watched by the media. For years, being the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys has been a prized position. While it may not translate on the field at times, whoever is the starting quarterback of the Cowboys will have a large focus on them. They are expected to lead, not just on the field, but off. 

That is where it gets tricky. While the perks of being “America’s QB” are great, one can only wonder about the pressure. Every move is watched, and any instance of what people see as “weak” will be unfairly criticized.

This past spring, Prescott’s brother, Jace Prescott, took his own life. According to Prescott, this, coupled with prior family tragedy and the ongoing pandemic, led him to seek help for depression and anxiety. 

“All throughout this quarantine and this offseason, I started experiencing emotions I’ve never felt before,” Prescott said. “Anxiety for the main one. And then, honestly, a couple of days before my brother passed, I would say I started experiencing depression. And to the point of, I didn’t want to work out anymore. I didn’t know necessarily what I was going through, to say the least, and hadn’t been sleeping at all.”

Many of Prescott’s peers admired his vulnerability and how he was willing to share something as personal as that. 

But, this praise was accompanied by discussions epitomizing the negative stigma that to this day still surrounds vulnerability in sports and professional sports in particular. 

“[Quarterback is] the ultimate leadership position in sports. You are commanding an entire franchise and they’re all looking to you to be their CEO, to be in charge of the football team,” said Fox Sports’ Skip Bayless on an episode of his show “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed.” “Because of all that, I don’t have sympathy for him going public with ‘I got depressed’ and ‘I suffered depression early in COVID to the point that I couldn’t even go work out.’ Look, he’s the quarterback of America’s team.”

Bayless was met with heavy criticism by colleagues and players alike. For how important mental health is, especially at this time, his comments were dangerous. He reinforced an ideology that has surrounded sports, and men, historically: have no feelings. 

“Shame on [Skip Bayless]. Are you kidding me? This is why we have a stigma against mental health, suicide, and depression,” tweeted San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Soloman Thomas. “[Dak] being vulnerable is showing unbelievable strength and leadership. He’s impacting so many lives. Dak’s a true leader for speaking about his real emotions.”

The support of his peers and many others was a great sign, but the comments made show that there is a long way to go regarding the mentality surrounding mental health—not just in the NFL, but in all sports and all over the world. 

The topic of mental health has been one that has rapidly made its way to the attention of professional sports. After then-Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan revealed he had depression and anxiety back in February of 2018, he hoped that his conversation would help others speak out as well. 

“It’s one of [those] things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day,” DeRozan told The Toronto Star. “We all got feelings. [Sometimes] it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

DeRozan’s comments made people reflect. He was an All-Star, successful NBA player and yet that did not make him immune to mental health issues. His comments were well-received and the following month, inspired by DeRozan, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love released his own article on The Players Tribune titled “Everybody Is Going Through Something.” 

“If you’re suffering silently like I was, then you know how it can feel like nobody really gets it,” Love wrote. “Partly, I want to do it for me, but mostly, I want to do it because people don’t talk about mental health enough. And men and boys are probably the [furthest] behind.”

Both DeRozan and Love continue to be outspoken about mental health and have inspired many. It even inspired the NBA, as the Player’s Association created the Mental Health and Wellness Program for players in May 2018. It allowed players to seek help and treatment as well as counseling outside of the team psychologists. 

In 2019 the NFL also launched its own mental health initiative and leagues across the world are beginning to do so as well. What was once a touchy subject has rightly become an issue that stays near the forefront of conversation. Athletes’ platforms will only continue to grow and it is a positive sign that a long overdue conversation on mental health has begun. It can help other athletes, and also other people across the world, speak out.

“Before I can lead I’ve got to make sure that my mind is in the right place to do that,” Prescott said. “I think that’s important to be vulnerable, to be genuine [and] to be transparent. I think that goes a long way [when] your voice is being heard by so many and it can inspire.”

Many in the media have made controversial statements over the years and will continue to do so. But, this is more than controversial. This involves life and a real issue in the world today. 

Mental health is not a debate topic.

The stigma is dangerous and must be changed. The support Dak Prescott, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have received for being outspoken is something that shows potential. Potential to possibly one day put an end to that dangerous belief that showing emotion is a type of weakness, on or off the field. Hopefully, this can show more people that there is no downside to speaking up. It’s huge to speak up, athlete or not, because you may just inspire someone who was feeling the same way. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org