Column: Nekrasov’s Notebook

Few jobs require performing before thousands of screaming fans, receiving love for success and hatred for failure. But professional athletes live with that reality – and the pressure takes its toll on the men and women we pay to entertain us. 

For NBA star Kevin Love, Nov. 5, 2017, was a day that changed his life. Then 29 years old, Love was in the middle of a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Atlanta Hawks when he realized something was wrong. He couldn’t play well. He could barely breathe. He ran off the court into the locker room, desperate to relieve what was happening to his body.

He was having a panic attack. 

Hoping to raise awareness for other athletes with similar stories, Love shared his experience publicly in The Player’s Tribune last year, and one by one, many professional and college athletes began sharing about similar challenges. 

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, roughly 20% of American adults (46.6 million people) face some form of mental illness in 2018. Anxiety, depression and similar mental illnesses can affect anyone, including athletes across every sport. 

But it can be difficult for an athlete to seek help for mental health problems. As Love relates in his article, athletes are taught to avoid showing weakness to stay competitive. In many athletes’ minds, admitting to a battle with depression brings fear of abuse and misunderstanding. 

For English soccer player Danny Rose, admitting to struggling with depression before the 2018 World Cup put him in the media spotlight, and according to The Guardian, a club trying to sign him wanted to verify that he was “not crazy” before even considering the move, demonstrating an ignorance toward mental health issues. 

But a string of incidents of racial abuse, including monkey chants by Montenegro fans in an England-Montenegro game, left Rose, who is black, wanting to quit soccer altogether, he said in April. 

Rose’s story shows the toxic state of today’s fan culture – people who struggle with depression or anxiety need every bit of support they can get to become healthy, yet fans take sports so seriously that they’re willing to abuse other human beings over a game.  

Toxic fan culture and that stigma of weakness that hangs over athletes makes taking the step of getting help much harder. Though the examples of players like Love and Rose do a world of good, change has to come from both sports administrations and fans for the stigma to be lifted. 

Thankfully, change is coming. Aiming to help soccer players struggling with mental illness, England’s Professional Footballers’ Association has begun encouraging every team to have a psychologist to work with the players, according to The Guardian. 

But as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver admitted to ESPN, the stigma surrounding mental illness still exists.

For that stigma to end, we must stop treating players like machines and start treating them like people. 

The sports we watch are just games, after all, and no rivalry, no victory, no mistake is worth dehumanizing someone who struggles with the same fears and doubts we all struggle with. Anger and emotion are natural parts of the sports experience – but when fans take to Twitter to racially abuse a player they’re frustrated with or boo players off the field, they’re choosing to be part of
the problem.

Players deserve to be treated like humans and receive the help they need. And that starts with us as fans treating them like the humans they are.  

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