When is it OK to criticize an athlete over mental health issues? Experts say never

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
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The goldbricker was making $33 million a year. That was the rap on Ben Simmons as he sat out the NBA season.

With his shades and designer clothes, he looked like a high-priced head case on the bench. When the playoffs arrived and Simmons decided he might finally be ready to earn his money, he backed out.

A mental block, he said, triggered back problems.

We’ve come a long way from Jack Youngblood.

The UF legend once played three NFL playoff games for the Rams with a broken leg. That was in 1979, when men were men and didn’t dare admit they couldn’t handle job pressure.

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Addressing athletes' mental health 

Now, athletes are readily confessing to having mental problems. Society is more sympathetic, but it’s still hard to look at Ben Simmons and not see Ben Snowflake.

It’s difficult to know who’s genuinely suffering and who’s just making excuses. When is it OK to rip someone who seems lazy or weak-kneed?

“Never,” said Dr. Bhrett McCabe.

Never?

“We never really know what they are going through,” McCabe said. “If they say they have an issue, we have to respect that.”

McCabe is a clinical and sports psychologist who has advised pro athletes and Alabama football teams. He knows 1,000 times more about the human brain than most people. I have to admit, it’s still hard for me to get my mind out of the 1970s.

But it’s getting easier.

This past week, James Madison University canceled the rest of its softball season after catcher Lauren Bernett committed suicide. She was the fifth college athlete to take their own life the past two months.

Four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka took a hiatus from tennis last year to deal with anxiety and depression. Gymnastics legend Simone Biles began shaking with fear during last year’s Olympics.

“Physical health,” she wrote on Instagram, “is mental health.”

Florida fired soccer coach Tony Amato two weeks ago largely because some players couldn’t handle his demanding approach. Harping on weight and body shape was not what players struggling with eating disorders needed to hear.

That didn’t mean they were snowflakes. It meant they were like the rest of society.

When does criticism go too far?

Almost one in five Americans lives with some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The math says that’s one starter on every basketball team. Twenty players on a college football roster.

They are not exactly like the rest of society, however. If we screw up at work, hordes of people don’t start booing and blasting us on social media.

“It stings,” McCabe said. “It hurts with such venom.”

Fans aren’t the only people who overly scrutinize athletes. They hold themselves to higher standards, and failure can be devastating.

Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions in Tennessee’s playoff loss to Cincinnati. It wasn’t the kind of thing he could just leave at work.

“Every time I closed my eyes, I kind of rewatched the game,” Tannehill told reporters last week. “I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep for weeks. I was in a dark place.”

He needed therapy to get him out. Simmons’ psyche has been bandied about since last season, when he developed the yips and stopped even trying to shoot.

He clashed with teammates, demanded to be traded, lollygagged in practice and got traded to Brooklyn, where he was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his back.

The 2018 Rookie of the Year looked terminally disinterested as he collected paychecks on the bench. Rumor was he was going to suit up for the Nets’ do-or-die playoff game against Boston. Then he told Nets officials that the mental block created stress that triggered his back issues.

People were not amused.

“Cmon MAN!!!” Reggie Miller tweeted. “Out for Game 4 when it was rumored you were going to make your debut. This dude has ZERO competitive (fire)….”

“Ben Simmons officially completed the biggest heist in NBA history,” ESPN’s analyst Kendrick Perkins tweeted. “He really sat out the entire season! Carry on….”

“Punk move,” Shaquille O’Neal said.

It sure felt that way. Then last week, Simmons underwent a microdiscectomy on his herniated L-4 disc. I’m not sure what that entailed, but it sounds as if he was really hurt.

The proof was in the X-rays. Problem is, there’s no X-ray to prove somebody is in a dark mental place.

That doesn’t mean we can’t boo or criticize their performances. That’s an inalienable right of being a fan.

But mental health really is physical health. Athletes are increasingly admitting they are human, and not all humans are like Jack Youngblood.

“Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering,” McCabe said. “You can’t say that in comparison to this or that, it’s nothing.”

When we do, it’s just a guessing game. And that’s a game almost none of us is qualified to play.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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