Column: Mental health could be a landmark issue for NBA


FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2018, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love watches from the bench in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

FILE – In this Jan. 8, 2018, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love watches from the bench in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

The NBA, under the guise of commissioner Adam Silver, is doing very well these days. TV ratings are soaring and international affection and participation augment every day; holistically, the league is in a great place. As an entity, the league has been both progressive and sensible and is arguably America’s No. 2 sport right now in the key 18-35 demographic.

While the league (really the player’s association) failed to conjoin the windfall of new revenue with competitive balance, it could be argued that super teams have only helped the league. Silver handled the Donald Sterling saga with grace. And, the league is at the forefront of the legalized gambling sphere.

The NBA has simultaneously stuck to sports, avoiding identity politics and political uproar during game action while being an active effort in change for the better. Players have spoken out against the Trump administration, but it hasn’t changed much discourse about, or much action, in the league.

Also outside the realm of play but still a hot-button issue is the conversation surrounding mental health. Stars like Demar Derozan and Kevin Love went public with their own battles last season, and Jackie McMullan of ESPN wrote a phenomenal five-part series about the tabooed topic just last month. A major health concern that seems to be becoming more common in America, despite a socially constructed gag order on talking about it, is finally receiving its due time in the sun.

Mental health issues are serious, and the courage to deal with them, let alone openly, is tremendous. The NBA has appeared nothing but supportive of making this a cause they rally around and taking part in the cause to address this issue, both in their league and nationally.

Celebrities and popular culture have always had a normalizing effect on society, and the NBA has a great opportunity to do something noble.

But mental health issues are just that, health issues. Bill Simmons and his Ringer employee Mark Titus, who battles depression himself, touched upon this in a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast.

Health issues of all kinds are an impediment to be a high-level athlete. Royce White, a former first round pick who has major anxiety about flying, never made it in the NBA. Love, an integral member of the Cavs, had to take a leave of absence in the midst of the season, hurting his team and causing chafing with his teammates.

Teams like the Celtics, who were pointed out in McMullan’s series, are using resources to do their best to address this. Bringing in a psychiatrist akin to having a trainer help a player recuperate from a torn ligament. A major difference? The Celtics guaranteed their players privacy; a team’s medical staff normally knows everything there is to know about a player’s injuries.

It is probably the moral thing for the Celtics to have done, but can it last and permeate through the rest of the NBA? As Simmons and Titus discussed, a player with chronic mental illness is a liability in competing. A team can’t justify a roster spot for a player whose coping with mental issues anymore than they can justify someone like Titus’ friend Greg Oden, whose body just physically can’t hold up. Just like how players play through nicks and bruises, players are playing through bouts of anxiety, depression and whatever else. But when they do this, they likely aren’t at their best selves. However, teams often know about injuries concerns, and can assign a cause for things that happen on the court. That doesn’t seem to be the case for mental issues, and players justifiably don’t want to give that sensitive information up.

If a player can’t kick his mental woes, even with team support, the rational GM will remove him for a player with less limitations. It makes sense from a performance standpoint; like a player with a chronic physical injury, the setback it causes them is not worth whatever they could provide. I didn’t fault Danny Ainge for shipping out Isaiah Thomas and his injured hip; should I feel differently if he was moving Jae Crowder because he secretly battles depression?

But because mental health has a different stigma, it just looks cruel. Maybe it is cruel. We are accepting of injured players being cast aside because physical injuries have been normalized, but these are real people with real problems who have to deal with the fallout of being unemployed or receiving less compensation. It could be argued in a competitive sport, that just comes with the territory. But I suspect history, as well as immediate public sentiment, would be harsh if the league starts encouraging players to be open with their issues than eliminating the ones who problems seem too burdensome.

The league has a position to be at the forefront of a mental health revolution, especially in sports. Based on the progress so far, they are on the right path. But things are hardly cut and dry. Players and management will duke it out about who, what and how they can be privy to a player’s mental health status, much like the impending fight about biometric data. Savvy GM’s will see mental health as an inefficiency in the market. Players with issues that they can discover first and that they feel are harmful are now players they can avoid, just like teams with the best medical staffs and athletic testing. But is it fair to these players that they are treated that way? Time will tell. It is a volatile topic that will be the subject of much debate, but a topic that the league needs to get right.

Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

Leave a Reply