Opinion: Outspoken Professional Athletes Pave Next Steps Towards Normalizing Mental Illness

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

It was Sept. 10, and sports commentators Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless of the sports talk show Undisputed sat across from each other, engaged in lively debate. The day prior, in an interview with sports journalist Graham Bensinger, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescot had admitted that he had been battling depression and anxiety throughout the football offseason. Prescott said the struggle had begun before his brother’s suicide in late April but had only been exacerbated by the tragic event.

Support for Prescott quickly poured in, but Bayless — someone already well-acquainted with controversy — had a different take. “Look, he’s the quarterback of America’s Team, and this sport that you play, it is dog-eat-dog. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spots, and it definitely can encourage others on the other side to come after you. You just can’t go public with it, in my humble opinion,” Bayless said.

Following his comments, Bayless received significant criticism, including a public rebuke from his employer, and rightfully so. That being said, Bayless’s remarks may have some merit as they share a sentiment that appears to have been widely held among players in the National Football League (NFL) for quite some time.

For decades, discussions around depression among football players have lingered mainly in the shadows, with an open dialogue about the disorder often being viewed as a sign of weakness. Retired wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. backs this up in a personal essay published in August of 2018. “Too often taboo, depression is shut behind closed doors — especially in a tough-guy sport like football, with a social media environment that glorifies successes and status,” Smith Sr. said.

And that’s what makes Prescott’s willingness to admit that he struggled through depression and anxiety so impactful. Prescott, a top quarterback in the NFL, is of such stature that his openness to mental health is set to normalize public discussion regarding mental health among professional athletes, rather than stain his reputation. Furthermore, for all the other 46.6 million people in the United States who have a mental illness, Prescott’s admission is a reminder that even athletes who perform superhuman feats on the field and make millions off it can still struggle with mental troubles.

Prescott joins several other professional athletes who have publicly admitted to struggles with mental health over several months. For example, on Aug. 26, basketball superstar Paul George confessed that he had struggled with anxiety and depression while in the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) postseason bubble. “I underestimated mental health, honestly,” George said in a press conference. “I had anxiety, a little bit of depression. Just being locked in here, I just wasn’t there. I checked out.” A’ja Wilson, MVP of the 2020 Women’s National Basketball Association season, also admitted that she struggled with mental health conditions.

In the past, such confessions would have been looked down upon by fellow athletes. As star professional athletes continue to become candid about their mental health, discussions about mental health discussions are rapidly becoming normalized within and outside professional sports leagues.

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