Conversations On Athletes’ Mental Health Take Over Sports

Athletes’ mental health has been an increasing topic of discussion over the last several years. With national champions like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka speaking out about their experiences with mental illness, the subject has been breached, facilitating conversations about personal wellness, autonomy, and national duty. What once might have been a blissful ignorance that the strongest and fastest among us were made of stronger armor, now a very real, very important discourse emerges. After the NFL’s latest incident, sports fans and leagues across the country must reconsider what it means to be well and healthy in body and mind to ensure all athletes feel safe and supported.

Buffalo Bills Player Damar Hamlin Collapses After Tackle

On Monday, January 3rd, millions of football fans gathered to kick off the new year and watch the Cincinnati Bengals play the Buffalo Bills at the Bengals’ home stadium in Cincinnati, OH. Only minutes into the first quarter, Bills player Damar Hamlin, a safety, made what seemed to be a normal tackle until he collapsed, unconscious, mere seconds after the play; the roar of the stadium slowly fading.

Cameras panned the field, broadcasting the distress and fear visible on players’ faces while commentators struggled to find words, their networks cutting to commercial in frequent succession. After nearly ten minutes of attempting CPR, paramedics stabilized his heartbeat and rushed him off the field to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

According to officials, the 24-year-old experienced cardiac arrest, though at this time, it is indeterminable how or why. While he is making small improvements, Hamlin remains in critical condition, too soon yet to know if he’ll make a full recovery and/or return to professional football.

NFL Must Grapple With Frightened And Traumatized Players

Hamlin’s accident has caused a disruption in more than just the NFL’s schedule; given the traumatic experience of watching a healthy, young athlete be hurried off in an ambulance, players across the league are hesitant to return to normal.

Psychologist Dr. Scott Goldman, who works with a myriad of professional athletes, says the issue is difficult because everyone deals with trauma in their own way. For some, playing football might provide a distraction, a respite from the fear and anxiety, for others, the game could be triggering and unfathomable in a time of such duress. Goldman has worked closely with the NFL for the last two years and regarding Hamlin’s incident said, “I think this is going to be a really complicated thing for individuals to navigate. This is not a simple solution of suspend the season or force re-engagement.”

This event has mobilized not only players and medical professionals, but fans of the sport as well. Many believe this to be a wake-up call, a plea to re-evaluate and re-consider how and why we can encourage and support something that clearly endangers the individuals playing. An opinion piece written for The New York Times reads, “…the specter of destruction on the field, let’s face it, is part of what makes football such an American draw. That’s why the highlight shows are full of the most jarring, brutal hits.” Another references how unsettling Monday night’s incident was because nothing was out of the ordinary until all of a sudden it was. Hamlin’s collapse influenced a sort of movement driven by all those who love football and its dedicated athletes.

It spurred those tasked with ensuring the safety of the players to take another look in the mirror. It made some fans reaffirm their love for the sport and the community round it. It made others reassess their appetites for football’s inherent violence. It was a dissolution of the fourth wall that tries to keep the game, with all its corporeal risks, in the realm of entertainment.

- Andrew Key, The New York Times, 2023

Athletes’ Mental Health And Wellbeing Often Overlooked

Every year the NFL sees its fair share of trauma; in 2021 alone there were 387 documented injuries across the league between concussions, MCL, and ACL tears. More recently, after Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa experienced several back-to-back concussions without appropriate league-mandated support and response, the NFL has recently amended its benching policy for head hits. Due to the nature of the sport and the culture surrounding it, many players feel uncomfortable disclosing any symptoms of illness or injury; too often they’re expected to “man up” and push through it. The same can likely be said for the athletes’ mental health, especially considering the pedestals they’re placed on.

When Naomi Osaka declined to attend a press conference during the French Open in 2021 in an act of self-care and preservation, her decision was met with scrutiny and backlash. When Simone Biles withdrew from the final competition in the Tokyo Olympics to regain the connection between her mind and body, the nation exploded with remarks of her selfishness and an expectation to finish what she started. When millions of viewers and dozens of fellow players watch their comrade and friend fall to the ground from cardiac arrest, the leading issue was the re-scheduling of the game followed by ways in which policies and expectations might be amended to better care for these athletes. Too often, mental health is emphasized and flagged as a crucial pillar in a person’s wellbeing, only to be overlooked in instances where it matters most.

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Professional Athletes And Substance Abuse

While athletes’ mental health is of increasing awareness and concern, so too is the rate of substance abuse in professional sports. In a study done in 2011, researchers found that around 52% of retired professional football players had reported consuming Opioids at some point during their career; approximately 71% of those players knew they were misusing the drug.

Substance abuse does not discriminate. It can affect anyone, no matter their job, position, or rank in society. Athletes are often held to unobtainable standards and spend their entire careers tirelessly proving themselves and their worth, attempting to be unrealistically indomitable. This can lead to self-medicating as an escape from the pressure of perfection or utilizing performance enhancing drugs to ensure they remain relevant and on top of their game.

Fortunately, as we continue to move forward, we learn more about the importance of full body wellness and ways in which we can support, uplift, and encourage our beloved athletes. There are organizations and resources built on the foundation that athletes are human too and with humanity comes hardship, a common occurrence that binds us all.

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Hannah Zwemer

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  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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