Athlete Mental Health and Fandom

Is it possible to reconcile a relationship that may be inherently damaging, no matter the intentions?

Next week I’ll begin previewing the 2021 Cal football season, but before we fully immerse ourselves in the return of football, now is the time to step back and think about our relationship with the people we root for.

If you’ve been at all engaged with the wider world of sports, then you’re certainly aware of world-wide discussion about the mental health of elite athletes. The NBA took the lead on trying to support the psychological needs of their athletes beginning a few years ago. More recently, proactive decisions from Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles - and the subsequent online backlash - has put mental health needs in the spotlight.

The pressures faced by Osaka and Biles are uniquely their own; trying to compete when you’re a global superstar dealing with pressure, sexism, and racism while barely an adult boggles the mind. But while the most famous athletes on the planet are extreme examples, you get the sense that nearly every high level athlete experiences the same challenges on some level or another.

It’s for that very reason that I’ve found recent writing from Cal alum Rod Benson so engrossing. Rod was recently hired as a columnist for SFGate, and while you should read every one of his articles, two in particular are directly related to the topic at hand.

In one piece supporting Kyrie Irving’s proactive mental health regime, Rod gets at a scary truth: success on the court all but mandates unhealthy mental health practices:

If mental health issues that arise after retirement are the symptom, it’s the rigors of competition that are the cause. I recently wrote about Warriors big man James Wiseman and what it would take for him to find success in the NBA. I detailed how I had to literally alter my personality, become a different person entirely, to achieve my fullest basketball potential. What I didn’t really get into was how crazy that process actually was. I didn’t just become a different person. I became more violent and less vulnerable.

Any athlete, upon reaching a certain level, manifests the same traits. Some make it happen earlier, some later, but it’s entirely learned behavior. In the context of a game, these traits can serve you well. In the context of everything else, such a profound shift in mental conditioning — especially without proper mental health facilitation — has negative effects. It’s like if you spent a decade perfecting the best way to cook a steak, and in the process didn't realize you never ate a salad. Eventually you’re going to do damage to yourself, though it might not be visible or attended to for a long time. 

More recently, Rod discusses how he empathizes with Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympics because he reached his own breaking point in his professional career, and then had to deal with the fallout:

When the team called and said that I’d have to be back two weeks earlier than expected, I was so salty that I told them “no” on the spot. I’d be there the day that was agreed upon, based on my pay. That didn’t go over well. I got cut even though we were favored to win our third straight championship. Not only that: The coach bad-mouthed me to the media and made me an enemy of the entire league. The comments were wild. People began to think I just couldn’t deal with the “pressure.” In reality, the situation sucked and it wasn’t worth it anymore.

Go read both pieces now, then report back here.

Done? OK, good.

Individually, both articles are fascinating, but taken together they paint a depressing picture. To reach the pinnacle of their sport, athletes have to work incredibly hard and most have to develop dangerous psychological coping mechanisms. Meanwhile, they are expected to perform by fans, coaches, and team management/ownership, under significant media scrutiny. Then, when some of them inevitably reach their ceiling (or breaking point) they are often greeted with scorn and abuse by people who have no earthly idea what those athletes did just to get that far in their career.

I’m sure this dynamic has existed for quite some time, but I think it’s safe to say that the simultaneous growth of global media/social media and the stress of a global pandemic eliminating support structures and coping mechanisms has a lot to do with some of the more public examples of athletes either breaking down or taking publicly scrutinized steps to protect themselves.

Sobering stuff, all of it.

Which leaves us to ponder our role as fans. Or, in my case, as both a fan and in some sense a member of the media, even if it’s in an amateur capacity. What responsibility do we collectively bear for this problem, and what responsibility do we bear to make it better?

It’s easy to avoid saying nasty things to an athlete, either in person or over social media, but it’s also true that a vocal minority of malcontents will continue to flood Twitter and Instagram mentions after any prominent competition.

Maybe the least we can do is to avoid reacting negatively when an athlete takes steps to help themselves; to react with empathy rather than derision.

Cal, to their credit, has taken on mental well-being as part of the new Cameron Institute that supports a variety of non-athletic needs of Cal athletes.

This is all worth getting right, because fans aren’t going away and athletes don’t want us to go away. If fans go away, then so do careers for athletes. People don’t dream of scoring in the final seconds in front of an empty stadium, and if you ask any athlete I’m sure they’d say that they’re thrilled about the slow return of spectators to stadiums.

At some point this fall, something bad will happen on the field for Cal football. Maybe something entirely self-inflicted. You, me, and everybody else at the stadium or watching at home will curse. I may or may not be tempted to write a comment on this website, or send out a tweet, or otherwise express my angst. God knows I’ve done it in the past

Our collective challenge: find an outlet for that emotion that’s respectful to those involved, who worked really damn hard to get there, and who will be much harder on themselves than us fans anyway.