Black Sports Players and Mental Health

Part of the fun of being a sports fan is the debate. The comparison of competitors to see who is better, who would win, who has the better stats and accomplishments. We do this, fair or unfair, across eras and generations — we want to know who is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time). Should we take a step back, we would more than likely realize the futility of these conversations. Nevertheless, it’s barbershop talk, how we get to know one another — it’s fun. 

Growing up my father and I would sit for hours and discuss basketball players. We would pit them against other players, comparing stat lines, physical attributes like height and weight, who was more durable, who had the most heart. We would  choose players from the NBA and put them on teams. These teams were the best players that exemplified whatever that team was called. One of these teams was called the “All-Soft Team”. The All-Soft Team was the team of the softest players in the league. The guys who would break down on you; the guys who wouldn’t finish a game, who might quit on you, or who just might get injured.

As I said, it was fun. But what we never took into account that these players were also human

2020 was a difficult year. (Hello, I am Captain Obvious. And you are?) Coming out of that year, it is no surprise we have seen more athletes who have cited mental health as a reason for stepping away from competition. Last year, it was Paul George who mentioned he was struggling playing inside the NBA Bubble with no fans. In early 2021, we saw Naomi Osaka, one of the premier tennis players we have today, and most recently, we saw Simone Biles, the undisputed gymnastics G.O.A.T., remove herself from competition in the Olympics because, in her words, “I just don’t trust myself like I used to.”

Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast the world has ever seen, quit. 

And we should commend her for it. We should be proud of her for having the strength and being vulnerable enough to recognize her limit; She should be lauded for her ability to, on the biggest stage, say, “No. I can’t do this.”

This is a revolution.

For so long, we have praised athletes who “leave it all on the court/field”. The ones who are willing to “go out on their shield”, as the combat sports world phrases it. We have idolized the ones who have pushed beyond their limits. But have we considered the price? Are we aware of the toll it takes on an athlete’s physical and  mental health when they force themselves to compete beyond their limits for our entertainment?

I am glad she quit. I would rather her prioritize her health over winning gold in a game. I am proud of the example she has set for so many young athletes, but especially Black ones. She has shown everyone that she is more than a gymnast. She is a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a girlfriend. And when she is finished with a floor routine or a performance on the vault, she is a human being. 

Sometimes winners do quit.