Mental illness is an issue that’s not given enough attention, so it should be no surprise that it’s also a problem within professional sports. Earlier this year, Larry Sanders walked away from a lucrative career after seeking treatment for depression, anxiety and mood disorders. While Sander’s basketball career may be over, the discussion about mental health in professional basketball is just beginning. The NBA has a problem with mental illness, and it looks like they don’t care.
Players like Sanders, Royce White and Delonte West have all provide extremely visible examples of mental illness in the NBA; but, in a league with roughly 420 active players at any given time, it’s safe to assume that they are not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from mental illness; that means, for each player we’ve heard about, countless more struggle in silence.
“The amount of NBA players with mental health disorders is way over 26 percent,” White said. “How many times does this stuff have to happen before we admit something really disturbing is going on here? I think one person tweeting ‘F*ck you, go kill yourself’ is disturbing. But when you get into the hundreds of those tweets? The thousands of those tweets? I see a lot of people out there with really volatile mental disorders that are not getting help.”
“We don’t do a very good job with mental health,” one NBA executive told Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com. “We don’t have any answers, and we’re not doing a good job looking for them.”
That was 2012. Since then, the issue has continued to come up, and yet there’s been almost no action. So why doesn’t the NBA care about the mental health of it’s players? For that matter, why don’t the fans care?
In 2010, writer Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone was perfectly comfortable publishing an article where, in one sentence, he called troubled NBA players both “insane” and “freaks”. Personally, I don’t believe Taibbi meant to be offensive, but I also don’t think he made any attempt to avoid it. Ludwig Van Beethoven, Winston Churchill, Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Dickens are all men who suffered from mental illness, yet it’s hard to imagine journalists referring to them quite as flippantly.
After leaving the NBA, former New York Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury was diagnosed with depression. For a long time, Stephon was considering suicide. As writer Richard Bertlin of DailyKnicks.com described the situation quite well:
“I think many of us suspected Marbury was going through a bout of depression… but it was easier to make light of it than to be humane about it… (I) just wanted him off my team to save our franchise the embarrassment of having a ‘vaseline eating weirdo’ on our roster”.
Marbury eventually found success playing in China, but not everyone is as lucky. Phil Hankinson, Baskerville Holmes, Bill Robinzine, and Melvin Turpin are just a few of the former NBA players who have taken their own lives. It would be unfair to say their problems could have been fixed if they had more support from their previous employers, but I doubt that would have made anything worse.
Physical injuries are not surprising in a sport that demands so much from its’ players, but the same can be said of mental illness. There’s an immense pressure on players to excel. When players cannot meet these expectations, they’re publicly vilified. If a player loses, their team’s fans yell at them. When players win, another team’s fans yell at them. Knowing these conditions, it’s not shocking that players are prone to anxiety and depression. Both of these types of injuries are caused by the sport, yet fans treat them completely differently. When a player suffers multiple knee injuries, it’s viewed as a tragic, but when a player has a mental breakdown, it’s talked about like it’s their fault.
Royce White was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in 2008 and quickly became one of the first players to publicly discuss his mental health struggles. In 2014, White’s case was covered in the Pepperdine Law Review. The piece, written by Michael A. McCann, focused on “Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act for NBA Players”:
“Should White resume his NBA career, he may request from his team substantial accommodations as a condition of employment… The easiest way for White (or a similar player) to receive accommodations would be for White’s team to voluntarily provide them. Should the team not do so, White and his agent would likely seek formal assistance from the National Basketball Players’ Association (“NBPA”)… If the NBPA and NBA could still not identify reasonable accommodations, White might seek recourse through the legal process. Specifically, he could file a charge of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against the team and NBA.”
For the moment, the NBA itself has no comprehensive mental health program for players who are facing this sort of challenge. While some franchises have team psychologists to provide support, many players, including Royce White, have expressed concern with this system.
“The conflict of interest is definitely there,” White said in one interview. “(I think) independent doctors are what’s needed to make sure that the focus stays solely on health and what’s the player’s healthiest choice, not what’s the healthiest choice that can make him be the most productive basketball player because sometimes those might not intersect”.
As long as players can satisfy the employer’s requirements for the job and perform the essential functions, their employer must provide them the same accommodations they would for any other form of disability. However, while the symptoms of White’s condition, General Anxiety Disorder, manifest as an inability to fly, other players’ symptoms could be exhibited in a variety of ways. Problems could arise when a player’s behavior, exacerbated by their condition, comes into conflict with the “moral turpitude clause” included in most uniform player contracts. Even though this clause has never been successfully applied within the NBA, it represents a unique off-court challenge for players in an era of constant media scrutiny.
Unfortunately, none of the EEOC provisions prevent a team from simply refusing to extend contracts or sign troubled players during free agency. For the moment, too many people seem comfortable with this strategy. What if, instead of simply cutting their losses, teams actively worked to prevent these types of situations?
The American Psychiatric Associations’ Partnership for Workplace Mental Health (workplacementalhealth.org) offers a number of tips for creating a mentally healthy workplace. Catherine Baase, M.D., at Dow Chemical recently proposed a strategy for calculating the true-cost of lacking a comprehensive business plan. NBA players might not be “traditional” employees, but the core principles are still the same; companies who invest in the mental health of their employees have lower medical costs, less absenteeism and greater productivity.
But the players know as well as anybody that this struggle extends far beyond the league. “If it takes this platform to boost or activate what we need to do mental-health wise, then that’s not good enough,” said White. “Then somebody else isn’t doing their job.”
In 2010, Metta World Peace, formerly Ron Artest, teamed up with Congresswoman Grace Napolitano to try and raise awareness of mental health in schools. While Napolitano has been able to successfully implement the program in her own district, she has so far been unsuccessful at passing the act on a nationwide level. In March of 2015, The Congresswoman teamed up with Chris Gibson (R-NY) to reintroduce the Mental Health in Schools Act (H.R. 1211). If adopted, the act would on-site, school-based mental health services for youth.
With so many individuals and networks readily available to work on the issue, it is shocking that the NBA has not yet spearheaded a larger initiative to address mental health, internally and nationally.
The NBA has a strong history of community outreach; UNICEF and the Wounded Warrior Project are two of the many charities that the league supports and promotes through their “NBA Cares” organization. The association has a green Initiative and a global development program, yet they have nothing dedicated to mental health awareness. While the NBA does have a health and wellness initiative, NBA/WNBA FIT, the program focuses primarily on physical fitness for youths. This is an easy issue for them to fix.
The league already has players working to promote this issue, they have existing connections to politicians who have expressed an interest in supporting these types of endeavors and they already have the infrastructure in place to organize and administer a program of this type.
Mental Health America (MHA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are both organizations working within the United States to raise awareness regarding mental health. I’m sure either one of them would welcome the opportunity to work with the NBA. So, the question is: what’s stopping them?
Mental illness has always been a misunderstood and taboo subject, but surveys show that attitudes have been steadily changing over the past twenty years. These shifts in perception are due, in part, to conscious efforts by groups like the World Federation of Mental Health, who helped organize the first “World Mental Health Day” in 1992. In the UK, efforts by celebrities like Stephen Fry have helped to foster and open dialogue about mental health, but the United States is still lagging behind.
While there is no panacea for these issues, at the very least, the importance of raising awareness cannot be underestimated. If we can foster an open dialogue about mental illness and encourage the public to recognize symptoms, the impact could make a real difference to millions of Americans who struggle with mental health issues on a daily basis. That sort of campaign will take more than just Royce White, it will take teamwork and leadership, traits that basketball’s management seem to be missing on this issue.
The NBA reaches 3.1 billion people every year, and that sort of publicity could do wonders to help make sure that Americans are getting the whole story when it comes to mental health. For the moment, though, I’ll just have to assume that they don’t care.
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