Over the past few years, the topic of mental health in professional sports has been talked about with increasing regularity, with many athletes beginning to speak out about it. Thankfully, the NBA is no exception to this - On media day for the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo spoke about his offseason and taking a much needed mental and physical break from the game. Ben Simmons has addressed his mental health struggles more than once over the past year, and in the weeks leading up to the opening of training camps across the NBA, DeMar “DeMarvelous” DeRozan appeared on JJ Redick’s The Old Man and The Three podcast to chat about various basketball topics.
One of these topics was his mental health, and he had this to say:
One of the things that caught my ear during this interview is when DeRozen said,
“It’s so much internal pressure to wanna be great every single day, every single day of like, ‘I gotta go back to the gym. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t this. I didn’t this. Should I take the day off? No, no, no, I’mma just push through it.’ And you know you carry that so much to where you can’t really be fully happy until you walk away from it.”
As a fan of basketball, and witnessing the athletic accomplishments of players like DeRozan, hearing quotes like this makes me feel helpless and incredibly sad. I don’t think the entertainment of watching elite athletes ball out should come at the expense of their well being. So what can we as fans do to help? More on this in a bit.
The conversation around athletes and mental health is being had by people much smarter than I, and it’s been happening more visibly in recent times thanks to advocates like Skylar Diggins-Smith, Simone Biles, and Kevin Love, just to name a few. The International Olympic Committee released a consensus statement in 2019 that found, among other things, that up to 35% of professional athletes suffer from a mental health crisis. There are approximately 450 players in the NBA. Thirty-five percent of that is 157.5. So that means that there could be as many as nearly 158 players in the National Basketball Association that are currently struggling with some sort of mental health issue. That’s a potentially staggering statistic that comes with a lot of stigma.
Now, mental health has a stigma for the average citizen, but the stigma can get amplified for professional athletes because so many people view them as indestructible and if they show any signs of “weakness” or “needing help,” they’re clowned for it.
We’ve seen this monster rear its ugly head recently in the NBA with various media outlets belittling Ben Simmons for choosing to sit out for the entirety of last season, citing his mental health as one of the primary reasons. Some of the things that have been said about him because of this decision are atrocious, and only add to the issues he’s working through.
Simmons and DeRozan are examples of something much larger. Statistically, they’re only two out of a potential 150+ NBA players that are struggling with some sort of mental health issue. The pressure-cooker that is the NBA creates an atmosphere that demands a lot of its players, and players like DeRozan and Simmons are no longer being silent about it.
In a similar vein, Giannis spoke on his summer during the Buck’s media day and had this to say:
At around the 30 second mark he says,
“...being able to take a break, not only physically but mentally. Just kind of go away from the game, spend some time with your family and do what you love, and like just sit on the couch, eat Doritos and you know, be a couch potato. Like, you need that in order to be great.”
Then he pauses, raises his eyebrows and smirks, “I know it sounds bad, but you need it.”
Giannis’ sense of humor is well documented, and what he said during his interview on media day was also disguised as a joke, but I think there’s actually some fairly sage wisdom in it. No one - no matter how competitive, ambitious, driven, or hungry - can go at full speed 24/7.
Hell, Giannis is arguably one of the most competitive and driven players in the NBA. Just look at how he transformed his body and game in his first nine seasons: going from an unknown skinny-as-a-rail Greek kid to a two-time MVP, Finals MVP, Defensive-Player-of-the-Year, and perennial dominant force in the league. And even he, the Greek Freak himself, says he needs time to recharge, refuel, and simply sit on a couch with his family while eating Doritos.
One of the most interesting parts of his quote is the add-on at the end, “I know it sounds bad…” Giannis said this, I imagine, because he knows how a lot of folks will react to hearing him say he “was a couch potato and ate Doritos” during the offseason. He knows people will be quick to judge him, call him soft, or say he’s not committed enough. The unrealistic expectations some NBA fans (and some NBA organizations) have of players are toxic, and have the potential to do real harm.
This brings me to what we can do as fans of the amazing sport of basketball to lessen our negative impact on the stars we adore so much. First of all, RELAX. At the end of the day, basketball is just a sport, it’s not life-or-death. Sure, it can be disappointing to watch your favorite player lose a step, or your favorite team get defeated in the Finals, but athletes aren’t robots. They still need to breathe, rest, and recuperate.
The second thing we can do is give professional athletes the space to be human. No one and no thing is perfect. Full stop. Not even Michael Jordan made all of his shots, but that doesn’t make him any less of a GOAT. Sometimes Lebron won’t want to stop to sign an autograph, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a dick. We can dissect the clips of Russell Westbrook not joining team huddles, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the full story. We can never truly know what’s going on with an individual, so leading with grace and understanding is more beneficial than not.
The third thing we can do is practice empathy. If you practice empathy you’ll get better at being able to understand and share the feelings of others (a very useful life skill, but also pertinent here). Put yourself in DeRozan’s shoes for a second: knowing because of the pressure that comes with being a professional athlete that you’ll never be truly happy until you stop playing the game you’ve loved since you were a kid. Sit with that feeling for a second. Doesn’t feel too good, does it? Put yourself in Simmon’s shoes: the whole world watching your every move, rooting for you to fail and crumble under the pressure. Man, that’s a whole lot of negative noise you have to battle through to stay focused. Put yourself in Giannis’ shoes: since becoming the number one ranked basketball player in the NBA, and bringing home a title to Milwaukee, people expect nothing less than perfection from you. Talk about an unrealistic expectation.
If we can all be more understanding and patient with our favorite players, allowing them to release the pressure valves of the NBA, then maybe more of those who are struggling with mental health issues will seek out therapy and begin to heal. If we give them the space and time to do this I daresay we’ll see less burnout, hear less negativity, and be able to watch some freaking amazing athletes hoop like there’s no tomorrow.