Professional athletes in the United States and Canada are increasingly discussing their personal struggles with mental health on commercial media outlets. Notably, National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kevin Love has received praise for his “courageous fight” to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in sports. In a March 2018 essay for The Players’ Tribune, Love detailed his bouts with panic attacks during the NBA season, writing, “Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.” As a successful athlete, Love has accrued lucrative endorsement deals with Banana Republic and the Built with Chocolate Milk campaign. Following the public stories of other NBA players like Channing Frye and DeMar DeRozan, national media outlets framed Love’s essay as a “courageous decision to speak candidly on mental health.”
This recent media coverage of mental health in sports, however, is concerning for several reasons. First, the coverage has primarily amplified the personal stories of successful male athletes. For example, the media attention on Love’s struggles with mental health has led to opportunities for lucrative corporate sponsorship. Love is now partnered with the personal hygiene company Schick to produce a new web series on mental health struggles among elite athletes with fellow NBA players Paul Pierce, Channing Frye, and Olympic swimming gold-medalist Michael Phelps. Due in part to this publicity, Love and Frye were featured in Nike’s recent advertising campaign for their new line of yoga apparel. Canadian professional basketball player and former NBA draft pick Royce White, due to his noted advocacy for changing mental health policies in professional sports, will be the subject of an upcoming episode of the HBO series Real Sports. However, much like the general lack of media attention given to women’s sport, there seems to be little coverage afforded to mental health in women’s sport—though approximately one-third of all female student-athletes struggle with mental health issues and professional female athletes like the WNBA’s Imani Boyette have publicly discussed their struggles.
Second, there is a notable absence of stories from athletes whose mental health struggles derailed their professional careers. For example, Delonte West is a former NBA first round pick who earned more than $16 million from 2004 to 2012. While athletes like Love now receive supportive coverage, the media attention on West’s mental health played a role in stymieing his career. In 2009, following a highly successful season starting alongside LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers, West was arrested for firearms possession. Some coverage at the time detailed West’s struggles with bipolar disorder and depression, framing the struggles as an impediment to the player and his team’s success on the court. Though the Cavs “dearly love[d] their hard-nosed guard’s personality and ability,” then-Cleveland reporter Brian Windhorst wrote, West’s personal and legal problems were becoming a “challenge for the team.” From 2009 until his last season in 2012, West’s career was marked by a series of challenges, ranging from being homeless during an NBA work stoppage, to being the subject of a vicious, unsubstantiated, race-tinged internet rumor involving LeBron’s mother Gloria James. At a time in which the NBA did not have a “competent mental-health program for players,” West’s struggles were often framed as a product of individual failures, an NBA player whose “self-destructive behavior” derailed his once-promising NBA career.
It is not a coincidence that the recent media coverage of mental health in sports has prominently featured professional male athletes like Love and Royce White, who, though he has not been signed by an NBA team, has been highly successful in the National Basketball League of Canada. Such coverage has advanced narratives of individual achievement, positing mental health as an obstacle that successful athletes have overcome, their experiences inspiring them to speak candidly for the benefit of others. Though the coverage of White’s struggles has allowed for an important discussion of mental wellness protocol in professional sports, the omission of stunted athletic careers limits the possibility of highlighting the systemic failures of sport organizations in caring for the mental health of athletes. Love is framed in terms of his individual success and how he exemplifies a commercially-lucrative definition of masculinity linked to sponsored, public discussion rather than obstinate silence. The story of Delonte West, in contrast, exposes the dark side of professional basketball as an unequal social institution and highlights the systematic failure of the NBA to provide support for one of their athletes.
By omitting West’s story and struggles, the national discussion of mental health in sports exhibits important class and racial dimensions. In 2014, West, who identifies as Black and Native American, gave a candid interview with Vice Sports, in which he documented his struggles with bipolar disorder, the personal and family context surrounding his 2009 arrest, and his continuing difficulty to provide for his wife and children through professional basketball. Though he publicly rejected the rumor that he had an affair with Gloria James, and multiple media outlets deconstructed the rumor as a vicious iteration of the “locker room affair” myth, the unsubstantiated hearsay resurfaced in other articles reporting West’s candid Vice Sports interview. West, in short, continues to be racially framed as a disgraced athlete, whose personal and criminal transgressions both “explain” his story and deny him the possibility of redemption.
While athletes like Kevin Love are publicly applauded for overcoming personal obstacles, the struggles of female athletes and former athletes like Delonte West continue to be marginalized in media discussions of mental health in sports. Notably, scholars in the sociology of sport field are increasingly studying the issue of mental health. For more productive mental health awareness in sports, we must begin by highlighting the experiences of those without corporate sponsorship, those whose careers were negatively impacted by media coverage of their struggles, and the systemic inadequacies of the professional sports industry.
Samuel M. Clevenger is an instructor in Sport Management at Towson University. He recently received his Ph.D. in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. He teaches and studies the history and sociology of sport and physical culture in Western societies.