Athletes are more than their entertainment value

Humanizing the mental health struggles of professional athletes

photo of a jump rope placed in front of a mental health resource poster.
PHOTO: Prerita Garg / The Peak

By: Saije Rusimovici, Staff Writer, and Isabella Urbani, Sports Editor

Whenever I overhear friends and family talking about last night’s hockey game or an upcoming playoff series, it reminds me of the way I would describe characters in a dramatic Netflix series. An athlete’s worth is often dictated by their entertainment value, and we neglect to consider the difficult circumstances that aren’t necessarily visible on-screen. Athletes are often recognized for their strength, poise, and outstanding athletic achievements. In a similar way, we look up to professional athletes like we may look up to our favourite celebrity. 

Because their competitive performance is marvelled at from afar, it’s easy to think of a well-performing athlete as this larger-than-life character on your television screen. The truth of the matter is that, like a celebrity, a professional athlete experiences the same triumphs and failures as anyone else. And I’m not talking about a bad game. The often hidden impact of high-pressure environments and intense physical training can negatively affect an athlete’s mental health. Some of the more prevalent mental health symptoms and disorders include burnout, anxiety, depression, adverse alcohol use, and eating disorders. 

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, emotional and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Therefore, good mental health is not determined by the absence of mental illness, but rather, a state where a person is able to cope with stress and have good emotional and physical support.  

Unique stressors like overtraining, social media scrutiny, and performance expectations may hinder athletes from achieving this quality of life, despite what they may look like modelling athletic apparel on camera or being awarded a medal on stage.

For athletes of colour, racist abuse can be detrimental to mental health. University of Belmont professor Kristi Oshiro’s research on racism and its impact on athletes demonstrates the intersectionality of racism and mental health. “For professional athletes it’s a little distinct and different,” Oshiro said, “because they’re expected to compete and consistently perform at this ridiculously elite level of play, all while being open or vulnerable to criticism from people around the world.” 

Because athletic organizations depend on athletes performances to make money and maintain a fanbase, mental health matters have been a taboo topic in the world of sports for years. Despite notable athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka opening up about their mental health struggles, these issues are often brushed under the rug by the organization or never brought forward by other athletes themselves.

Both Biles and Osaka have been transparent about how racism, as two Black women, has contributed to a decline in their mental wellness while playing sports. After Biles won the gymnastics World Championships in 2013, historically becoming the first Black woman to do so, she was upstaged by competitors who said they would have beat Biles if they had the same skin colour. Osaka, who’s both Black and Japanese, received backlash for choosing to represent Japan at the 2021 Olympics rather than the US, even though she’s been representing Japan since she was 14-years-old. 

“I don’t choose America and suddenly people are like, ‘your Black card is revoked,’” Osaka explained about the racial undertone of people’s unhappiness with her decision. “African American isn’t the only Black. People really don’t know the difference between nationality and race because there’s a lot of Black people in Brazil, but they’re Brazilian.” 

Stigma is a big part of the reason athletes neglect to seek help for their mental health struggles. Because sports tend to be rooted in a “culture of masculine ideas, valuing strength and mental toughness,” athletes have to think about the risk of potentially losing playing time or being removed from a team entirely for speaking up. 

On top of stigma, many mental health services in sports are lacking, making athletes feel as though they can’t take a step back from their sport to receive the help they need without jeopardizing their position. The National Football League didn’t mandate teams have a “behavioural health team clinician” until 2019

But still, from team to team, the amount of access players have to these services vary. Since the rule was pushed into the league by the player’s association, only seven of 32 teams have hired staff in this position full-time. Some teams are contracting providers on an individual basis when an athlete requests it. These contracted providers are also not required to have a background in sports psychology, which might cause athletes on teams that don’t have full-time sports psychologists to not reach out in the first place for fear of being misunderstood. 

As SFU is an NCAA school, it’s important to recognize that many of our elite athletes may face similar challenges with their mental health. Just back in April, five SFU football players filed an injunction in response to SFU cancelling its varsity football program. Part of the reason for the filing was SFU had not given enough notice about the program’s dismissal to allow for players to find alternative schooling and housing, which caused unnecessary stress on top of the uncertainty players were already facing. 

Players have to be treated as people first, and not as their stats on a game sheet. There’s this idea in sports that players only matter if they make it professionally. People hold reservations about athletes who play sports for fun, as though sports can’t both be a hobby and a profession for some. If you don’t play professionally, then you’re not accomplished or deserving of recognition, but if you do play professionally, don’t complain because you’re a professional — and professionals can’t face adversity beyond the playing field. 

The separation between athlete and person disappears as the degree of difficulty in a sport increases, as though the idea of taking a step back is more detrimental than experiencing a decline in mental wellbeing. 

Attitudes and education are some of the most influential ways to encourage athletes to come forward with their struggles. This means educating athletic organizations, coaches, support staff, and parents about mental health issues that may have a particular impact on an athlete, professional or not. Transforming an athlete’s environment to a socially supportive, encouraging space will allow them to talk about their difficulties. Stop putting the sport first, and start thinking about the players who make it possible instead.