Featured on GQ. Author: Nathaniel Friedman
This past weekend, desultory big man Jahlil Okafor announced via Instagram that he struggles with chronic anxiety. He's the latest NBA player to disclose his mental-health issues: During the season, DeMar DeRozan spoke candidly about his depression and Kevin Love revealed that he suffers panic attacks. Presumably, these players would not have gone public if they felt their employers would be anything less than sympathetic.
This made it all the more shocking when, two days later, news leaked that some owners were lobbying for players' mental-health history to be included in their medical records, which must be made available to any team interested in their services. Reports say this has been prompted by DeRozan's and Love's actions. But it's an impulse that doesn't just fly in the face of what these players accomplished. If this change is approved, it will set back the conversation about mental health in the NBA and beyond.
There is, of course, a cold-blooded argument to be made for prospective employers being aware of conditions like depression or anxiety. They can potentially have as much of a long-term impact on performance as a bad back or bum knee. When teams are committing tens of millions of dollars to players' services, they want to know what they're paying for. They want to know that they aren't getting damaged goods. But this view evinces a basic, maybe willful ignorance of how mental-health concerns differ from physical ailments. Physical ailments can be diagnosed with tests or imaging. Mental-health issues can only be accurately assessed if someone shares their symptoms, which requires them coming to view themselves as someone who could have these issues. Unless a person admits they could be sick, there's no way they could acknowledge being sick, which would leave them to suffer privately.
This is easier said than done. In spite of all the pop-culture references to therapy and the glut of psychotropic drug ads on television, mental health remains stigmatized in America—especially for men, who are expected to keep a stiff upper lip and stifle their inner lives. This strain of masculinity is even more pronounced around sports. And when you factor in the pressures professional athletes face to maintain an image, the stakes get even higher—all of which makes the decision to come forward especially brave.
The owners will claim, in typical bad faith-y fashion, that they just want to make informed decisions about their investments. But this view is fundamentally callous, as it forces players to choose between their well-being and their livelihood. It offers a negative incentive to seek treatment; even a check-in with a therapist could be a red flag to possible employers. And while this might not have a huge effect on the way a proven, valuable commodity like a DeRozan or a Love is viewed, a more marginal or younger player could easily find themselves out of a job.
All of this presumes that a player even knows he should seek treatment and actively chooses not to do so. The owners would be perpetuating the idea that athletes shouldn't have mental-health issues—that it is somehow a betrayal of identity. For individual players, this would lead to denial that inevitably exacerbates the situation. In addition to their symptoms, they would be dealing with the guilt and shame that comes with worrying they haven't lived up to who they're supposed to be. Dealing with depression or anxiety is painful enough already. Second-guessing yourself for feeling that way in the first place, or refusing to come to grips with what's happening in your brain, makes it exponentially more unpleasant. And feeling that this state is nebulous, unknown, and intractable lays the groundwork for unhealthy coping strategies.
Turning mental-health issues into a liability doesn't just affect players. If a perennial All-Star like DeRozan or Love comes forward, it proves the opposite—that one can be a highly competent person in spite of depression or anxiety. They become obstacles that can be overcome. Having this caliber of athlete as a public-facing advocate moves the cause forward; driving them back into the shadows will reinforce the idea that these conditions never afflict successful people. Instead, the public defaults to familiar stereotypes of nervous wrecks and bedridden slobs, thus making them less likely to identify themselves as someone with a problem.
It's ironic that the NBA, which this season distinguished itself as an open, honest place to start this conversation, could now be racked by a debate that should never happen in the first place. Cynically, it's just the latest example of how the league itself benefits from players' progressive attitudes while letting the owners run roughshod over their material interests. Already, the league has announced that it would partner with the NBPA to hammer out a comprehensive mental-health policy and that it "fully supports protecting the confidentiality of players' mental health information." This could be a key moment for Adam Silver to prove that the NBA really stands for what its brand professes to be.