Moving Past the Stigma of Mental Illness in Sports

By Claire Voltarel, columnist

Coaches, athletes and broadcasters use the clichéd phrase that sports is “90 percent mental.” But when push comes to shove, and quite literally in contact sports it does, the ticket-buying, TV-watching public wants the 10 percent, the physical.

A tweet alerting that an athlete has gone down with an ankle injury doesn’t shock. A sideline reporter updating on the player who just got carted off on a stretcher is routine. And when an athlete has a prolonged physical condition or is ill, it is an expected topic of discussion in the booth and all over Twitter.

So, imagine reading a notification on your phone like this: “Brandon Marshall out for tonight’s game due to a panic attack related to his long-term fight with borderline personality disorder, or BPD.”

U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons license, by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

Rather than an update on Michael Phelps’s latest rehab, imagine ESPN reporting that the gold medalist had to take a personal day to make a counseling appointment.

Both of these athletes are pro athletes of renown, so they would probably be told to “man up” and get back in the game (or pool). They would be mocked.

The stigmas and stereotypes associated with mental illness are not only applied to athletes, but they are especially public and, therefore, dangerous in the 24×7 mediated world of professional sports.

Sports media’s obsession with physical strength, prowess and performance frames physical injury as the biggest obstacle to a pro athlete’s success. This limited view contributes to sometimes fatal stigmas and a silent epidemic of mental illness throughout sport.

But the spectacle of a sporting event is just that, a spectacle, and with every focus, something else is out of focus. The focus is physical experience, from thousands of cameras to catch every angle of a pass to the closeup of blood oozing from the eye of the prizefighter. Athletes’ bodies are objectified and put on display. The coverage of injury follows: a player is photographed in physical therapy or seen getting stretched out on the sidelines to maintain their “product” (themselves).

In other words, if viewers cannot see it, it must not be important.

This is not to say that the personal lives of athletes should be constantly exposed. However, the total denial of mental illness in sports is irresponsible and deceptive. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five Americans suffers from a mental illness. Statistically, then, some are bound to be on your favorite teams.

In an article from The Player’s Tribune, Raiders wide receiver Brandon Marshall opened up about his struggle with BPD and depression, saying, “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.”

Maintaining this façade is where careful becomes harmful.

How are athletes supposed to heal if their “injury” is unseen, unmentioned and unrecognized? How can an athlete treat an illness when even mentioning it makes them appear weak? Having to internalize mental health problems pushes treatment further away. The silent guilt is what pushes many to their breaking point, and it will continue to do so until it is addressed, discussed, normalized.

Players like Brandon Marshall discussing their mental health may encourage other athletes to speak out, creating more and fuller representation and understanding. Such representation may also trickle down into society, showing younger generations that their issues are not abnormal, and that it is okay to seek care just as they would for a bad ankle or a strained oblique.

So, next time you watch a game and see the Jumbotron or watch hot dog mascots chase each other around the field, note that the players you came to see are the same people who go through things you can’t see.

We need to bridge the gap that yawns between our images of our favorite players as athletes and the reality that their mental health is every bit as important as their physical health.

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