What does one envision when they consider the title, ‘professional athlete’? Perhaps it is their elite physical ability, or their alpha-dog mentality. Maybe one pictures the glamorous lifestyle that comes with all the money they make. Being perceived as an athlete in today’s society definitely comes with its perks. At a young age, these individuals are placed on top of society’s hyper-masculine pedestal for all to see. They are idolized for their talents and praised for their success. From high-school all the way to the end of their careers, they are heavily documented, constantly being defined by their physical performance. These are just some of the factors that play a part in turning these individuals into legends. Yet, the irony of all of this is that with so much of an emphasis being placed on these athletes as seeming invincible, it leaves little room for them to be or feel anything else.
“When I first heard the term “mental health,” the first thing that came to mind was mental toughness. Masking pain. Hiding it. Keeping it inside. That had been embedded in me since I was a kid. Never show weakness. Suck it up. Play through it. Live through it.” (Marshall, 2017)
Up until recently, the notions of sports and mental health were seen as two very separate concepts. As stated by NFL wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, too often are young athletes being told that to be mentally tough means to ‘suck it up’ and ‘play through it’. Due to the way they are portrayed, their narrative is not allowed to coincide with issues regarding mental health. In fact, many see these matters as a form of weakness that could potentially derail their success (Love, 2018). However, in a study conducted on a group of professional football players, the frequency of matters concerning anxiety and depression fluctuated from 5% to 26% in current players, to 16% to 39% in former players (Gouttebarge, Frings-Dresen, & Sluiter, 2015). This just goes to show how many athletes have the potential of suffering from mental health problems as well. So why is that there is such a negative stigma attached to mental health within the culture of sports?
Just as mental health can be seen as the antithesis of sports culture, in that it is rarely ever discussed, masculinity in sports culture has proven to be perceived as a match made in heaven. Specifically, the idea of hyper-masculinity has evolved into becoming a cultural hegemony that permeates throughout sports culture (Jackson, 2014). For athletes, it comes in the form of brute force, wherein aligning one’s characteristics with that of an animal can be seen as affirming whilst indicating any signs of vulnerability is immediately perceived as weak. In fact, Dr. Bernard Vittone of the National Centre for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression, had described the stigma of seeking help and how individuals would be seen as ‘less of a man’ if they were to persist with treatment. He indicated that men are more inclined to abuse drugs or alcohol, as a way to self medicate themselves due to it being more socially acceptable (Zillgitt, 2013). So, if this is the extreme we are faced with, then why is it not discussed more?
The answer to that question is complicated, but part of the issue can be rooted in the ways that power is dispersed throughout our societal structures. Particularly, the media plays a large role in the reinforcement of these hyper-masculine hegemonic ideals (Corrigan, 2013). Their existence acts as an influencer of ‘idealized capitalistic ideals’ that focuses on the entrapment within the spectacle rather than matters of social and political significance. The spectacle itself refers to the ‘mechanism of control’ that functions by setting a facade first (Friedman, 2012). The illusion it creates is that of a just society, wherein individuals exist harmoniously. In this way, spectators are so enveloped by the dialogue involving sports culture, that they are less inclined to pay attention to the media entities that govern it. Therefore, if the media is able to control what spectators feel, then it is safe to say that their narratives had not included issues concerning the mental health of professional athletes.
A great example of how hyper-masculinity dictates sports culture can be seen in the incident regarding NBA player Kevin Love in January. During a regular season game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Love abruptly left the arena due to proclaimed illness. This became a topic of controversy due to the way his teammates reacted to his absence. After their loss, the team’s players held a meeting wherein several questioned the legitimacy of his illness (Polacek, 2018). The meeting was described as ‘loud’ and ‘intense’ as many of his teammates had insisted that he should have been held accountable. It was later revealed to the public that Love had suffered from a panic attack. A few months later, in an article on The Players’ Tribune, love wrote about his experience.
“I was running from room to room, like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, You’re about to die. I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe” (Love, 2018).
I understand that this is not the rhetoric that corresponds to what had been stated at the beginning of this article. However, I believe that this is an aspect that should be considered in future discussions. Since then, Love has continued to raise awareness towards the issues involving mental health and its stigmas. This is just one case that goes to show how unfamiliar the sports world is with mental health issues. In the video displayed below, he and Channing Frye, another NBA player, open up about mental health and their struggles relating to it (Frye & Love, 2018).
The Curious Case of Royce White
Although Love was able to give voice to some of the issues surrounding mental health, some still argue that not enough progress has been made in its acceptance. In the case of Royce White, there is still skepticism towards the NBA’s latest trend (Devine, 2018). Drafted in 2012 by the Houston Rockets, White was heavily publicized for his mental health condition. During his tenure in the NBA, White never saw time on the floor. He claimed that the NBA had decided that his mental health disorder was not worth dealing with, and he quickly fell out of the league’s favour (Devine, 2018). He had not had the level of celebrity that Kevin Love had. Therefore, the league and its media had labeled his character as ‘lost’ and ‘confused’. It had been reported that he clashed several times with the team that drafted him due to his anxiety disorder conflicting with team and league policies (Zillgitt, 2013). White’s mental health condition caused him to develop a fear of flying. Due to the nature of the NBA and their rigorous travel schedule, one can see how this would be an issue.
“Rockets personnel told him in 2012 that establishing a comprehensive written plan for managing his anxiety disorder would be ‘impossible,’ because doing so would set a precedent “for any league-wide issue regarding mental health.” (Devine, 2018)
Therefore, even as the NBA becomes more accepting of mental health issues concerning their athletes, there is still much more change that needs to take place in regards to the addressing of mental health matters. There needs to be more of an empathetic outlook on all mental health concerns, not just depression or anxiety. In the year 2016 alone, it had been estimated that 44.7 million adults in the United States aged 18 or older had some form of mental illness (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016).
Talk About It, Be About It
Understandably, participation in sports and athletic activities have shown to positively affect mental health (Marlier, et al., 2015). Studies have indicated that sports have the potential to ‘reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, delay cognitive decline, increase self-esteem and feelings of energy, and contribute to the overall quality of life’ (Marlier, et al., 2015). Therefore, one’s participation in sports does not necessarily mean that they are subject to the oppressive hyper-masculine culture that has been previously discussed. Being a part of something greater than oneself allows you to understand the importance of teamwork and perseverance. Though much of the article discusses the issues that surround mental health within the culture of sports today, there are recommendations that may help further society’s acceptance of it:
- One of the first suggestions that I want to put forth, is the improvement and implementation of mental health programs at the varsity and collegiate sporting levels. I believe that if we are able to integrate and familiarize mental health at an early age, then there will be much less of a stigma attached to the betterment of the athlete’s future mental state.
- Secondly, I suggest that all media, not just sports-related, increases their coverage towards mental health issues. I believe that allowing for these topics to come to fruition in societal conversation will open the doors to individuals who may not have had the courage in the past. In this way, we will be able to create a new form of acceptance.
Mental health is to be taken seriously. So let’s be serious.
Barnard, J. D. (2016). Student-athletes’ perceptions of mental illness and attitudes toward help-seeking. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 30(3), 161-175.
Corrigan, T. F. (2013). The political economy of sports and new media. Routledge Handbook of Sport and New media, 13(18), 43-50.
Devine, D. (2018, March 20). Why Royce White is skeptical the NBA genuinely cares about players’ mental health . Retrieved from http://www.sports.yahoo.com: https://sports.yahoo.com/royce-white-skeptical-nba-genuinely-cares-players-mental-health-155413843.html
Friedman, M. T., & Andrews, D. L. (2010). The built sport spectacle and the opacity of democracy. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 46(2), 181-204.
Frye, C., & Love, K. (2018, March 23). Kevin and Channing share stories about mental health. Retrieved from http://www.theplayerstribune.com: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/kevin-love-channing-frye-mental-health
Gouttebarge, V., Frings-Dresen, M., & Sluiter, J. (2015). Mental and psychosocial health among current and former professional footballers. Occupational Medicine, 65(3), 190-196.
Jackson, S. (2014). Globalization, corporate nationalism and masculinity in Canada: sport, Molson beer advertising and consumer citizenship. Sport in Society, 17(7), 901-916.
Love, K. (2018, March 6). Everyone is going through something. Retrieved from http://www.theplayerstribune.com: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/kevin-love-everyone-is-going-through-something
Marlier, M., Van Dyck, D., Cardon, G., Bourdeaudhuij, I., Babiak, K., & Willem, A. (2015). Interrelation of sport participation, physical activity, social capital, and mental health in disadvantaged communities: a SEM-analysis. Plos ONE, 10(10), 1-18.
Marshall, B. (2015, May 31). The stigma. Retrieved from http://www.theplayerstribune.com: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/brandon-marshall-nfl-mental-health-awareness
National Institute of Mental Health. (2016, December 31). Mental Illness. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
Polacek, S. (2018, January 22). Report: Cavaliers held team meeting as players questioned Kevin Love’s illness . Retrieved from http://www.bleacherreport.com: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2755462-report-cavaliers-held-team-meeting-as-players-questioned-kevin-loves-illness
Smith, D. (2018, February 25). Raptors’ DeRozan hopes honest talk on depression helps others. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com: https://www.thestar.com/sports/raptors/2018/02/25/raptors-derozan-hopes-honest-talk-on-depression-helps-others.html
Zillgitt, J. (2013, February 11). Royce White battles for mental health – his and others’. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2013/02/08/royce-white-houston-rockets-anxiety-disorder/1890421/