Mental Health in Sports, NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, Ben Simmons

Over the past few years, the topic of mental health in professional sports has become increasingly popular, with many athletes starting to speak out. Fortunately, the NBA is no exception to this – at media day for the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo talked about his offseason and a much-needed mental and physical break from the game. Ben Simmons has opened up about his mental health issues more than once this past year and in the weeks before NBA training camps open, DeMar DeMarvelous DeRozan appeared on JJ Redick’s The old man and all three a chat podcast on various basketball topics.

One of those topics was his mental health and he had this to say:

One of the things that caught my ear during this interview was when DeRozen said,

“There’s so much internal pressure to want to be great every day, every single day like, ‘I’ve got to get back to the gym. I didn’t do enough. I haven’t done that. I haven’t done that. Should I take the day off? No, no, no, I’ll just push it. And you know you carry this so much that you can’t be completely happy until you walk away from it.

As a basketball fan and witness to the athleticism of players like DeRozan, hearing quotes like this makes me feel helpless and incredibly sad. I don’t think the ball-watching fun of elite athletes should come at the expense of their well-being. So what can we as fans do to help? More on that in a moment.

The conversation around athletes and mental health is being led by people much smarter than me, and it’s been happening more visibly lately thanks to advocates like Skyler Diggins-Smith, Simone Biles, and Kevin Love, just to name a few. The International Olympic Committee published 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 about 450 players in the NBA. Thirty-five percent of that is 157.5. That means there could be as many as 158 players in the National Basketball Association currently struggling with some sort of mental health issue. This is a potentially staggering statistic that comes with a lot of stigma.

Mental health is a stigma for the average citizen, but the stigma can be heightened for professional athletes because so many people view them as indestructible and if they show any signs of “weakness” or “I need help,” they are clowns 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 all of last season, citing his mental health as one of the main reasons. Some of the things that have been said about him because of this decision are terrible and only add to the problems he is working through.

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Simmons and DeRozan are examples of something much bigger. Statistically, they are only two of a potential 150+ NBA players who struggle with some sort of mental health issue. The pressure cooker that is the NBA creates an atmosphere that demands a lot from its players, and players like DeRozan and Simmons are no longer silent about it.

In a similar vein, Giannis talked about his summer at Buck’s media day and had this to say:

About 30 second mark he says,

“…to be able to take a break, not only physically, but also mentally. Just step away from the game, spend some time with your family and do what you love and just sit on the couch and eat Doritos and you know, be a couch potato. It’s like you need that to be great.

Then he stops, raises his eyebrows and smiles, “I know it sounds bad, but you need it.”

Giannis’s sense of humor is well documented, and what he said during his media day interview was also disguised as a joke, but I think there’s actually some pretty sage wisdom in it. No one—no matter how competitive, ambitious, motivated, or hungry—can operate at full speed 24/7.

Heck, Giannis is arguably one of the most competitive and motivated players in the NBA. Just look at how he transformed his body and his game in his first nine seasons: going from an unknown skinny 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 just sit on the couch with his family while eating Doritos.

One of the most interesting parts of his quote is the addition at the end, “I know it sounds bad…” I guess Yannis said that because he knows how a lot of people will react to hearing him say that “was a couch potato eating doritos” during the off-season. He knows that people will be quick to judge him, call him soft, or say he’s not dedicated enough. The unrealistic expectations that some NBA fans (and some NBA organizations) have for players are toxic and have the potential to cause real harm.

This brings me to what we as fans of the amazing sport of basketball can do to lessen our negative impact on the stars we so adore. Primarily, RELAX. At the end of the day, basketball is just a sport, it’s not life or death. Sure, it can be frustrating to watch your favorite player lose a step or your favorite team get beat in the finals, but athletes aren’t robots. They still need to breathe, rest and recover.

The second thing we can do is give professional athletes the space to be human. Nobody and nothing is perfect. Point. Even Michael Jordan didn’t make all 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 jerk. We can analyze clips of Russell Westbrook not joining team huddles, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. We can never really understand what is going on with a person, so leading with grace and understanding is more helpful than not.

The third thing we can do is practice empathy. If you practice empathy, you will become better at understanding and sharing the feelings of others (a very useful life skill, but also relevant here). Put yourself in DeRozan’s shoes for a second: knowing, because of the pressures that come 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. It doesn’t feel very good, does it? Put yourself in Simon’s shoes: the whole world is watching your every move, rooting for you to fail and crumble under the pressure. Man, that’s a lot of negative noise to fight through to stay focused. Put yourself in Giannis’ shoes: Ever since you became the number one basketball player in the NBA and brought a title home to Milwaukee, people have expected nothing less from you. Talk about unrealistic expectations.

If we can all be more understanding and patient with our favorite players, allowing them to release the pressure valves of the NBA, then perhaps more of those struggling with mental health issues will seek therapy and begin treatment. If we give them the space and time to do that, I daresay we’ll see less burnout, hear less negativity, and get to watch some incredible athletes hit the hoop like there’s no tomorrow.

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