Strong. Tough. Fearless.
These are all attributes that our society has expected the male athlete to possess. And when it comes to the professional level, that demand is even higher. The stakes are higher. The pressure is higher. Yet, professional athletes are also expected to remain unfazed by it all and carry themselves with a certain swagger at all times. Realistically though, no athlete can always be at their peak mental state at all times. While they may be able to maintain a false persona on the court and in front of the media, behind the scenes, many players struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
In the NBA, this taboo topic has been brought to the spotlight by Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers and many more who followed in his footsteps. The NBA is arguably the most progressive and open-minded sports league in the country and maybe even the world. Many players and teams have been very public in their stances towards social justice issues, such as Lebron James and Stephen Curry. Coaches and owners, too, have backed their players as well as voiced their opinions. Through their actions, the members of the NBA have become faces of more than just a sport, but of a progressive movement that is bigger than just basketball.
“At a certain level, the NBA has found that middle place of embracing progressive politics, embracing hip-hop, embracing critical conversations about racism while not alienating a segment of white America,” said David J. Leonard, a Washington State professor of ethnic studies, told the NY Times.
This type of mentality has made it possible for players like Love to speak openly about vulnerable topics such as struggling with mental health. Twice during the 2017-2018 season, Love had to suddenly leave the court which caused many to speculate the reasons for his actions. He first spoke about his problems during the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. From that moment, he has become the “NBA’s unofficial spokesman on mental health,” a title given to him by ESPN. Love’s depression and the mental health issue as a whole was brought into the public’s eye when he published an article on The Player’s Tribune titled, “Everyone is Going Through Something,” and more in-depth later when ESPN released its “five-part series on mental health issues in the NBA” in August. His proactiveness has even caused the league to announce Dr. William D. Parham as the inaugural director of their Mental Health & Wellness program.
This is important. https://t.co/CV1CwjYIC9
— Kevin Love (@kevinlove) August 20, 2018
Still, this is only the beginning of the journey for mental health awareness in sports and there are so many obstacles to overcome. Love admits that there is still a large stigma and misunderstanding when it comes to mental health in the league. After he had to leave a game last season due to a panic attack, some of his teammates did not buy into that being a valid excuse for leaving his team during a game.
“The last thing this should be is taboo, but that’s what it is,” Love told ESPN’s Jackie McMullen. “I think about my dad [former NBA player Stan Love], coming from that generation. You don’t talk about anything. You hold everything in.”
The truth is that regardless of how much money the athletes are taking in, the pressures put on these players, physically, mentally and emotionally is surreal. Adding this on to family issues, genetically-linked depression and so much more has caused many to struggle significantly. And because they have been told their entire life to brush these problems aside and not let anything get in of their way of success on the court, they try to ignore it all. It is seen as a sign of weakness by many to receive counseling or therapy, so many opt out of that potential solution.
What Love’s has done through his vulnerability and courage is truly monumental. He is without a doubt not the first nor will be the last to deal with mental health issues, but is one of the few that has been so open about it. This is the first step to change the perception of mental health in the NBA and all sports, which has already encouraged more athletes to speak up for the cause themselves. Love and so many others are showing people that admitting to struggling with mental health issues and seeking guidance is not a form of weakness, but instead a sign of bravery and mental fortitude.