Opinion: For the sake of athletes’ mental health, it’s time to redefine toughness

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Dallas cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. Photo courtesy of nfl.com

America is obsessed with sports. As one of those obsessed fans, I have no issue with this, but I do think it’s worth noting the enormous platform we have given our athletes. Recently, athletes have begun to use this influence to speak out about issues close to their hearts but risk being shamed in order to do so. 

In recent years, athletes such as Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Demar Derozan have spoken out about their battles and routines regarding mental health. NBA all-star Kevin Love even wrote an article titled “To Anybody Going Through It” about his crippling anxiety. Most recently, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott opened up about his struggles with depression following his brother’s suicide and his mother’s battle with cancer. Prescott spoke about how he grappled with anxiety and depression, afflictions that have been heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. His candidness and vulnerability inspired many, including other NFL players. Atlanta Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst approached Prescott after a game between the Falcons and Cowboys and told him that he “respects the hell out of him,” even asking him to team up with his own organization aimed at promoting suicide prevention. The support Prescott has received is a sign of progress, but still, some were unimpressed.

Skip Bayless is an American sports journalist, reporter and TV personality best known for his screaming matches with fellow TV personality Stephen A. Smith. Following Prescott’s comments, Bayless criticized the young quarterback for showing “weakness,” and claimed these admissions would affect his “team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spots.” Although Bayless has issued a statement walking back these claims, his comments unfortunately represent a commonly-held view in our society.

Many fans see the athletes they support as role models. They admire the way they play on the court or field, but often ascribe to them unreasonable invincibility. This view of athletes is not the result of absentminded fans forgetting that these players are — like themselves — complex individuals, but rather, a deliberate refusal to acknowledge these athletes’ full humanity. If athletes begin to speak openly about societal issues, like politics or mental health, they are immediately instructed to “stick to sports.” Many of the same fans who glorify these athletes are threatened by their platform when those athletes use it to promote societal change. Recently, Laura Ingraham of Fox News told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble.” This in itself is an issue; for years we have turned to these athletes for distraction, comfort and camaraderie, but refuse to acknowledge their beliefs if they don’t align with our own images of what this athlete should represent. This recent trend represents a much deeper and more troubling aspect of society: the idea that vulnerability is a sign of weakness.

Bayless’ ignorant comments perfectly represent this widely-held viewpoint. Bayless stated that teammates would not trust Prescott because he admitted that he has dealt with struggles in life. We see this belief in sports, politics and our everyday lives. Admitting to mistakes and hardships is viewed as weak. Our culture often believes that all athletes, and people in general, should be tough. The thing is, I do agree that we should be tough. The issue is that we have a flawed definition of toughness.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers stated that he “saw what Dak said. I applaud him. I think it’s phenomenal, speaking out, because that’s true courage and that’s true strength.” Dak Prescott showed true strength in speaking about his struggles. He opened up to the world about being depressed and facing the hardships that suicide and illness can bring to a family. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, argues that courage and vulnerability are in fact inseparable. There is no act of courage that does not require vulnerability. We should applaud candidness and vulnerability; we should embrace the suffering that accompanies life as a communal experience and a means to unite, rather than an ugly truth meant to be hidden. In short, we need to think less like Skip Bayless and Laura Ingraham.

Their thought patterns point to a troubling narrative in our nation: fear of the deterioration of an “American way.” This fear stems from an anxiety over losing one’s status and tradition in society and has been showcased in politics as well as athletics. A racially motivated threat to status has led to recent neo-Nazi rallies and alt-right nationalist movements, as the discussion of racial inequality moves to center stage in our country. The #MeToo movement has made great progress for women, which has prompted a backlash by men hoping to return to an older way of life. I am not comparing Bayless and Ingraham to neo-Nazis, but a similar motivation can be found here. The “American way” of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and chasing success no matter what the cost is being threatened by a new focus on mental health, equity and community. We are slowly moving towards a world where toughness is not determined by how individualistic and silent a person is, and that thought makes many people uncomfortable. 

Toughness is not the absence of suffering, but rather the ability to live through it and even thrive because of it. Dak Prescott expressed that he has lived through that suffering, and now it’s time for the rest of us to realize that our vulnerability is our hidden strength.