“As human as we are:”

Professional athletes should prioritize mental health


Destiney Green, Contributing Writer

By endowing athletes worldwide to showcase their hard work and receive unconditional support from their countries, the Olympics appeared to be the perfect event amidst the chaos of the last two years. However, this “perfect” unifying event soon became divisive in light of countless controversial decisions, sending us back into a conflicted reality. In addition to the Olympic ban on swim caps that cater to curly hair, which galvanized Black swimmers, and the disqualification of Black female athletes Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi for having naturally high testosterone levels, the Olympic Games has now spawned critical conversations regarding the topic of mental health. More specifically, the Olympics sparked a conversation about the mental health of Black athletes following Simone Biles’ withdrawal and the revolting backlash she faced.

Often, people neglect to discuss the mental well-being of professional athletes due to the way we view them. Rather than treat them as regular human beings with thoughts, feelings, and struggles, we constantly encourage athletes to push their physical and mental limits in order to be depicted as the fittest, most talented players. Commercials and advertisements seldom encapsulate the mental challenges athletes have to manage alongside physical exercise. The public’s dismissive response when athletes do choose to speak up also reveals the need for fundamental discussion. In most cases, we find ourselves able to distinguish professionals from their respective occupations in order to humanize them as individuals. Why does the line blur when it is time to separate athletes from their sports? 

Simone Biles, undoubtedly the greatest gymnast of this generation, thoughtfully decided to withdraw from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics team competition after considering how her poor mental health would affect both her and the US team’s performance. Biles had experienced the unnerving ‘twisties’ in a prior event. Biles and gymnasts around the world later explained the danger of ‘twisties,’ where, in midair, the brain feels disconnected from the body and the athlete has no control over their actions. She was left lost and terrified midair, prompting her to reevaluate her mental state for the following events. In a sport as exacting and risky as gymnastics, uncertainty is a lot more than being nervous or having butterflies before a game, especially when Biles’ skillset is so elite and challenging. Uncertainty for a gymnast can be a life or death situation. “We’re not just athletes or entertainment. We’re human, too,” Biles told TODAY’s Hoda Kotb in an interview, calling upon people to empathize with her and other athletes. 

Biles’s honesty and ability to step back from the sport she loves are the qualities of an incredible athlete, yet many have used these actions to discredit and disrespect the gymnast. Biles has already fought for 32 Olympic and World Champion medals. She has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. Nevertheless, her concern for mental health was faced with trash-talking from people who have never experienced what it feels like to be a competitive athlete or, even more demanding, an Olympian representing her country amidst a pandemic that has transformed everyone’s lives. With the pressure of readjusting to life in a pandemic coupled with the pressure of competing in the Olympics as the most decorated gymnast of all time, I find it commendable that Biles could even compete and medal on beam after experiencing challenges with her mental health.

As time has shown, responses to Black athletes speaking out about mental health have also been especially negative compared to their white counterparts. After experiencing years of intensity and prolonged stress, 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps finally expressed his battle with mental health and the effect it has had on his athletic performance. He received sponsorships from brands like Talkspace for prioritizing his health rather than immediate resentment. Similarly, Megan Rapinoe, a professional soccer player on the US national team, has endorsed the use of cannabis (CBD) to alleviate anxiety for athletes, receiving positive reactions. In contrast, Sha’Carri, though accepting her disqualification from the Games, was still criticized for consuming marijuana to cope with her mother’s death. 

Biles is only another example of this double standard. The response to her withdrawal was not one of support, but one of hatred and criticism, which many other well-known Black women and athletes are familiar with. “Fans” who deemed Biles scared and mentally weak, mirror the negative tones used to describe Naomi Osaka, who also prioritized her mental health. Serena Williams has been masculinized and criticized for expressing herself like her white male counterparts. Allison Felix was discredited after giving birth. Nor is it just Black women. Lebron James has been told to “shut up and dribble” after using his platform to highlight societal racism. 

Athletes do not simply exist for our entertainment; they are people too. As I watched critics discredit the courage, self-awareness, and selflessness Biles mustered in prioritizing her mental health and team, I felt both rage and compassion for the inspiring athlete on the receiving end. Piers Morgan took his judgment to Twitter, writing “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport?… Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.” Biles’ case is just one of many that highlight the importance of mental health for all athletes and the harmful degradation of Black athletes when it comes to speaking up. When Black female athletes talk about mental health, they should be treated and valued with the same respect and seriousness that more privileged white athletes receive. 

Yes, it is amusing for many of us in the HM community to watch our favorite athletes on the big screen, draft the best team for fantasy football, believe the Phoenix Suns will win in Game 9, and argue about whether Lebron is better than Jordan. But it is also crucial for us to remember that our idols are just as human as we are.