by Andrew Carlier
A spectacle, as we’ve defined it, is a visually striking performance or display. Marry these displays with athleticism and the nature of competition and we arrive at the spectacle of sport. To those that leave us in awe with their performances go the spoils, but equally so, a burden. Our athletes, the performers, are unjustly held in regards reserved for myths. Rather than represent himself as a nuanced individual, an NFL Quarterback must possess traits found in a Heracles . The Heracleans are heralded by a media that still seem to denounce any sign of vulnerability, be it psychical or, most troublingly so, mental. While Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are currently taking the brunt of the tabloid-brigade it’s important to recognize this is not a new phenomenon. Let’s revisit the 2020 NFL off-season and the comments of “Undisputed” talk show host Skip Bayless regarding Dak Presscott, the Quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, and his struggles with depression.
In an interview with well-respected sports journalist Graham Bensinger, Dak Prescott offered the world some insight on personal hurdles he’s had to overcome in the last year. On the passing of his brother in the midst of a Covid tainted offseason Dak expressed, “"all throughout this quarantine and this offseason, I started experiencing emotions I've never felt before…anxiety for the main one. And then, honestly, a couple of days before my brother passed, I would say I started experiencing depression”. He would go on to describe losing his motivation to exercise as well as being unable to sleep regularly.
On September 10th, 2020 Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe held a segment discussing Dak’s comments on their popular talk show “Undisputed”. Skip offered the following, "I don't have sympathy for him going public with, 'I got depressed. I suffered depression early in COVID to the point where I couldn't even go work out.' Look, he's the quarterback of 'America's Team”'. The emphasis placed on ‘America's team’, a nickname hoisted upon the Cowboys during the glory of their 1970s championships, is a superficial mistake. It masquerades the Cowboys as emblematic of the “every man”, without actually being concerned with the “every man”. “America’s team” places its focus on the health of the brand rather than the health of its members. We then have a look at the deeper problem at hand as Skip continues,"If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team's ability to believe in you in the toughest spots, and it definitely could encourage others on the other side to come after you”. Co-host Shannon Sharpe, a Hall of Fame NFL player himself, contested Skip’s take and urged him to consider the plight of the performers.
Shannon: You like to place yourself in that position, you probably wouldn’t have shared what Dak shared -
Skip: You just can’t for the good of your franchise and your football team and, in the end, your own psyche –
Shannon: -But what good is that Skip if you don’t share it, but you're dealing with it internally?
Skip: You just got to.
Skips comments show a disregard for the crucial role athletes like Dak Prescott have had in addressing the issue of mental health. In the midst of the Tokyo Olympic Games, a poetically timely example that comes to mind is Michael Phelps. As the most decorated Olympian of all time, Phelps carried the weight and reputation of an entire country (not just Dallas) on his ironically broad herculean shoulders. In an interview with CNN, Phelps spoke of the toll this pursuit of perfection took on his health, "Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression...I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life”. Phelps documented his treatment and went on to form the Michael Phelps Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting healthy physical and mental living. In cooperation with the Boys & Girls Club of America, his foundation has gone on to help tens of thousands of families across the country. In an effort with HBO, Phelps has also executively produced the documentary “The Weight of Gold”, where he unveils the mental health epidemic that Olympians in particular endure on a daily basis.
The pressure Olympians carry is quite unique, in the sense that they don’t have a “regular season”. They don’t have a weekly showcase to present themselves to the world. There isn’t a “next game” to make up for last week’s loss. There’s no MVP trophy to compensate for not winning the Super Bowl. There’s also no off-season. No holiday. No vacation. There’s just 4 years, 3 podium spots, and 1 shot to make all your life’s work worth it. Phelps addresses the toxicity of expectation with a poignant question regarding its aftermath: “If your whole life was about building up to one race, one performance or one event, how does that sustain everything that comes afterwards?”
Like all legends of literature, athletes find their stories recited and translated beyond the epochs they engulfed whilst alive. If the glory of our Heracleans suggest a Greek mastery of myth, it’s in what comes after that reveals the genre where their true talent lies: tragedy.
“Im at the parking lot at the top of Lambs canyon”
“And what’s going on there?”
“Im gonna kill myself and I want police to come get the body”
That chilling dialogue was the last conversation Olympic athlete Speedy Peterson would ever share with another human being. The olympian was equally known for his signature move “the hurricane” as he was for his tumultuous relationship with teammates and sobriety. After enduring alcoholism, depression, and witnessing his close friend commit suicide years earlier, the on-again off-again member of the US Ski Team took his own life on July 25, 2011. He was only 29.
As a silver medal winner in the 2010 Vancouver Games, the skiers suicide rocked the Olympic community to its intimately small and grossly neglected core. His career comeback in Canada seemed to have been a consequence of new lifestyle. A healthier one. A happier one. But as is often the case with mental health tragedy, the cracks that cause the collapse are buried beneath the surface.
The stigma surrounding mental health is not exclusive to professional sports. While the wounds of gold medalists might be more visible, the cuts bleed extensively into collegiate sports as well. A 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center in the United States shows that “70 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 consider anxiety and depression a ‘major problem’ among their peers”. Couple this information with the additional pressures of physical competition and the sacrifices required of glory and it becomes clear that the student athlete is especially vulnerable. In, “College student Athletes: Challenges, opportunities and policy implications”, Daniel Kissinger provides tremendous insight on what exactly is causing our student athletes so much harm. He breaks them into the following 6 categories:
This analysis is further supported by the sheer number of student athletes that are in fact exhibiting symptoms of depression. As reported by Global Sport Matter’s Wendell Barnhouse, “A study published in 2016 by Psychology Today found 6.3 percent of collegiate student-athletes met the criteria of clinically significant depression”. And those are the facts. These aren’t myths. This isn’t a generational folk tale that needs translating. This is the reality that men and women from all age groups face today. Athletes aren't Heraclean, they’re human beings. A prodigy is a person before he is a prospect. And the greatest loss isn’t measured in medals, but in the lives that leave us prematurely, all because they might’ve been half a second late to the finish line. Athletes are incredible, yes, but they aren’t invincible. They wrestle with worry before they wrestle each other. They struggle to climb out of bed before climbing a summit. And sometimes they find it harder to breathe above ground than they do underwater. Athletes are individuals who are deserving of our help as much as anyone else for the primary reason that they’re simply that: just like anyone else. It’s time we started treating them that way.
For more information on Suicide Awareness/Prevention visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
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