The conversation about mental health in professional sports is again at the forefront of the sports world after Naomi Osaka spoke publicly for the first time since her withdrawal from the French Open and Wimbledon tournaments, respectively. Osaka pulled out of each tournament due to depression and anxiety over speaking to the media following tennis matches.
The mental health aspect of professional sports is a conversation that is becoming more common over the past couple of years. It was thrust into a huge spotlight the NBA less than a year ago during the pandemic restart of the 2019-20 regular season in Orlando at Disney World. LA Clippers forward/guard Paul George spoke openly about the mental strain and challenges he faced, while in the bubble; it went on for nearly three months straight. Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers is another player who has been very outspoken about his mental health issues.
Love started the Kevin Love Fund and has also partnered with Headspace. Headspace is a mindfulness and meditation app aimed at helping people find ways to cope with and address their mental health issues.
STILL, A LONG WAY TO GO
The sports world still has a ways to go when it comes to having these conversations about mental health. There is a lot placed on the shoulders of professional athletes, and their mental health and any issues they may be dealing with must be taken seriously. At the same time, we all know that certain responsibilities come along with being a professional athlete.
In no way is this meant to diminish anybody’s struggle with their mental health. Too frequent when we hear about mental health regarding pro athletes; it is mentioned in conjunction with dealing with the media. Yes, sports can be an up and down emotional rollercoaster; moreover, the last thing an athlete wants to do after a tough battle on the field or court is sit down in front of cameras and microphones and answer questions for 10 minutes. This is especially true after a loss.
In becoming a professional athlete, players understand that speaking to the media is part of the gig. Post-game interviews are an obligation when you are requested in a team sport. If you play an individual sport such as tennis, then that responsibility falls solely on you.
ARE FINES ENOUGH?
Remember former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch? He [Lynch] is infamously known for not wanting to talk to the media. The former Seattle Seahawks running back made headlines at the Super Bowl for saying, ‘I’m just here so I don’t get fined.’ Lynch expressed this to reporters. It has been reported that for one season alone, Lynch was fined over $130,000 for skipping out on media availability.
Part of the reason players aren’t willing to give media access is the constant scrutiny and lambasting some of them receive from media outlets and personalities regularly. But many of them are also praised when they have a great game, or have a highlight play that makes Sportscenter’s top plays. It isn’t always bad press, but we know how the world works in the social media age. If you aren’t praising someone and only saying good things about their performance, then you are hating. Mental health issues or not, this is part of this conversation.
Anyone can suffer from mental health issues; and, they should be able to get the help they need no matter their situation. Just like regular everyday people who are not pro athletes can need a mental day from time to time, athletes are or should be entitled to the same privilege. There is a fine line, and this is something to discuss as well. Like anything else, there will eventually be someone that decides to use this as an excuse to skip media sessions if there hasn’t been already. This is not meant to target anyone specifically; I’m just stating a fact.
One thing we know about humans
If you give an inch, there is always someone that will take a mile. Call it human nature or whatever you will, but that saying exists for a reason.
No reasonable person would argue that pro athletes should be able to take a mental health day from time to time, as Osaka spoke about after withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon. But it should not be to avoid talking to the media after a game or match. If you need a day, that is fine take the whole day. Don’t play that day. If you play a team sport, take the day off completely, as well. Not just the post-game press conference.
BETTER ACCOUNTABILITY ALL AROUND
When a pro athlete signs a contract to play a sport, there are specific bylaws about media availability that you agree to upon signing. It is understandable to just not want to speak some days, and as humans, we should all understand that. It just seems like athletes are all too willing to speak to the media after a big win and when they know nice things are going to be said about them and their performance.
But, if anything, perceived as negative comes their way, some want to turn and walk away. It just doesn’t work like that and isn’t real life. You cannot only take the good all the time in any aspect of life.
Many pro athletes today use social media regularly. Social media platforms like Twitter and Youtube can be the most brutal places in the world. Knowing this, people continue to go back for more when they are not obligated to do so.
So yes, we need to continue having these conversations about mental health because they truly are important not only for pro athletes but for every human being. But there is a balance that will need to be found where mental health days are concerned. These athletes should be able to have something in place like this. Mental health is just as important as physical health.
It should be understood that paying greater attention to mental health by placing a higher value on it will also come with certain expectations. There will be the expectation that the athlete’s mental health should match or exceed their physical health. Teams and sponsors will expect this; bet the farm on that.
I’m just not sure if this is a conversation many people are ready and willing to have at this point.