So much has changed in the world of sports over the last decade. We are making sports safer, there is more equality in pay and there have been monumental shifts in the access we have to sports and athletes. However, one of the most important changes in sports is at the intersection between sports and mental health.
For decades, mental health and substance abuse among athletes were largely hushed.
Athletes were not known to talk about their struggles with substance abuse, depression or anxiety. Consequently, the last ten years have begun humanizing athletes and breaking the stigma that athletes don’t experience substance abuse or mental health issues.
In retrospect, there are many factors as to why this happened, which is far beyond the scope of this article. While we can’t break down all the reasons why we are going to go over the moments or athletes that have contributed to this change.
The past decade highlights a time with some of the most impactful moments where mental health and sports interacted.
The intent is to bring attention to these moments that help to break the stigma, otherwise known as the “unwritten rules” we have for athletes or the way we view an athletes’ relationship to mental health.
So, for an athlete or event to make this list, the event or athlete had to provide a lasting impact on how we view mental health and sports. That impact must also reach a wider landscape. These events are not ranked in order of importance, merely the 8 most impactful moments, in my judgment, of the past decade.
Without further delay…
Athletes sought justice with the infamous sex abuse scandal at Michigan State University.
What happened: Between 2016 and 2018, more than 150 women came forward with stories of being abused by their Olympic team physician. Many of the allegations indicated that the male physician in charge of the team was using his position to molest and abuse women for decades.
What was the impact: Over the two years of testimony, accusations, and investigations, the impact of this case has been monumental.
First, it began to hold people accountable.
Often in cases of abuse, there are people who intentionally or unintentionally enable the abuser. For example, there are reports that complaints were made to Michigan State and US Olympics as early in 1998 that the team doctor had been sexually inappropriate.
Nearly 20 years later, many high-level officials lost their jobs for their failure to address the reported abuse. Second, the personal testimonies of many of the young women gave the public a view of the detrimental effects that trauma and abuse can have. It forced people to face the impact of abuse, dismissal, and disbelief.
Finally, it empowered female athletes. It gave them the opportunity to speak out, to be heard and validated. It has set a new precedent for female athletes that they have the power to be heard, listened to and advocate for themselves.
Gracie Gold prioritized her mental health over her career.
What Happened: Gracie is a two-time U.S. champion figure skater and Olympic Bronze medalist. In 2014, Gold reports that she started to have “dark and depressing feelings.” She reports that over the ensuing years, she began to experience a mental health “crisis.”
She reported this to her friends and later detailed that her life was spiraling out of control. She reports that she was struggling with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder for years.
Just like many other athletes, Gracie reports that she pushed these issues aside for nearly two years.
She reports that she kept telling herself she was fine, though she wasn’t.
Impact: After some disappointing performances in 2016, Gracie did something unprecedented. She took a break from figure skating and made public that her break was intentional; in order to take care of her mental health.
Gracie checked herself into a treatment center. What’s remarkable about this story is twofold. First, she either knowingly or unknowingly gave up her participation in the 2018 winter Olympics. Second, she stepped aside when she was close to her prime. Figure skating is a grueling and challenging sport. It is highly competitive and there was no guarantee that she was going to be able to return to the top of her sport.
However, Gracie’s courage and bravery, to not only seek treatment but also step away from an Olympic appearance and be vulnerable in her honesty is rare and needed. She has emphasized the effect mental health can have on her performance. Her biggest testament is that she has returned to figure skating.
It demonstrates that mental health can be treatable, and one can thrive with attention and care.
Cris Carter opened up about his alcohol abuse.
What Happened: In October 2015, Cris Carter, former Viking’s pro-bowl wide receiver and all-pro appeared on Mike and Mike an ESPN Radio Show.
In an unprecedented interview, Cris Carter opened up about his struggles with alcoholism. Cris Carter spoke of his 25 years sober, his daily struggle with choosing sobriety and how alcohol and drugs affected his life and his early NFL career.
Impact: What makes Cris Carter’s discussion of alcoholism unique?
Other athletes have come out and talked about their struggles with substance abuse, but Carter’s situation is unique. First, he chose a platform with a huge audience, Mike and Mike was a premier morning show and was one of the most popular shows in the country.
Second, he was vulnerable, he was tearful, honest and moving. He did more than just say he struggled with alcohol, he detailed how sobriety and dealing with his “demons” can be difficult every day.
Finally, he used his platform to advocate for others. Cris didn’t go on the radio to just discuss his own struggles. He has repeatedly advocated and provided empathy and compassion for athletes like Josh Gordon and CC Sabathia.
He provided answers and support to athletes who may not otherwise have support.
In summary, Cris made himself vulnerable to judgment and shame to further the discussion and invoke compassion on behalf of others who were struggling the way he once was.
Kevin Love and Demar DeRozan spoke out about mental health in the NBA.
What Happened: Kevin Love and Demar DeRozan are both All-Stars and elite basketball players.
However, the most impactful thing they have in common is their struggles with mental illness and their willingness to be vocal and advocate for mental health in sports and the NBA.
Kevin Love has been very vocal about an anxiety attack that he had during a game. He also did an interview in which he was open about seeing a therapist, the process of therapy and how helpful and important it can be.
Demar has had a similar experience and impact. He has been open and vocal about his experience with depression and mental health. He has been using his social media platforms to normalize and speak about his experience.
He often references that he is not ashamed of his experience and will frequently speak to young people about his experience in hopes to normalize and de-stigmatize mental health challenges.
Impact: They have had an impact on young people and even the NBA.
The NBA has recently introduced a new policy in which teams are required to keep a mental health professional on staff. They have had an extensive reach and continue to support and promote causes that attempt to break the stigma of mental health.
Robin Lehner opened up about his mental health diagnosis.
What Happened: Robin is an NHL goalie. Over the past two years, Lehner has detailed his struggle with mental illness, where he eventually entered a rehabilitation program.
Lehner details in an open letter that he used to abuse alcohol and pills. He states that he didn’t feel in control of his brain and did what he wanted.
Lehner acknowledges that he was hurting himself and his family but didn’t know how to stop until he had a panic attack in 2018. Lehner then checked himself into treatment where he was diagnosed with bipolar I and given medicine to help the symptoms he had been self-medicating.
Impact: Lehner currently plays for the Chicago Blackhawks.
In some of his letters and a speech he gave at the NHL awards night, he talks about his continued pursuit to challenge mental health stigma. He acknowledges and talks about his illness; however, he makes a point that he is not weak because he has a mental illness.
He has even designed a new goalie mask that brings awareness to the stigma around mental health. What makes this story remarkable is not only Lehner’s willingness to be vocal and continue to break stigma, but the way staff and players in the NHL have reacted.
Lehner reports that he received support and understanding from owners and won the Masterton Trophy at the 2019 NHL awards. Lehner is also coming off his best statistical year, which happens to be his first sober year in the NHL.
What Happened: Junior Seau wreaked havoc on the football field for more than a decade. He was spoken highly of as a person, athlete and family man. Many people were shocked to learn that years after retiring from the NFL, in 2012, Seau took his own life.
There are many unknowns about why Seau took his life and we may never know exactly why. But a medical examiner confirmed that Seau had a “brain disease” when he took his life, which is now referred to as CTE or Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, typically a result of repeated head trauma.
Impact: Seau’s life on the field impacted countless numbers of people and aspiring athletes. His death may have had an equally impactful outcome.
When Seau was diagnosed with CTE after his death, it caused the NFL and athletes around the country to start to research how repeated head trauma can impact people later in life. Research has been extensive, the NFL has made rule changes, they have introduced a concussion protocol and hire independent neurologists to make judgments on players safety.
Similar changes can be seen all the way down to Pop Warner football for kids. Seau’s death was heartbreaking and tragic but the impact it had on research, increases in safety and understanding of the dangers of football is incalculable.
Ritchie Incognito and Jonathan Martin brought awareness to the problems with “locker room culture.”
What Happened: On October 31, 2013, Jonathan Martin left the Miami dolphins citing bullying from a teammate. Jonathan was a starting offensive lineman prior to leaving the team. He alleged that fellow Dolphins teammate, Richie Incognito was harassing, bullying and intimidating him.
Incognito was later suspended by the team for conduct detrimental to the team.
Impact: Shortly after he was suspended and the story broke nationally, Incognito began going on various radio shows, defending himself. He often cited that it was just “locker room culture.”
As the story developed back in 2013, it was revealed that Martin was bullied in high school and struggled with depression. While Incognito cited normal locker room teasing, it was clear that Jonathan’s interpretation was vastly different. Often, locker room culture means that what happens in a locker room, stays in a locker room.
Not only was this case breaking this unwritten rule, but it was highlighting the damaging effects the harassment can have on others. When Incognito and two other players were found guilty of harassment it changed the landscape of what is acceptable in “locker room culture.”
Brandon Marshal sought recovery for his mental health issues.
What Happened: Brandon Marshal was a pro-bowl receiver who played for several teams in the NFL during his decorated career.
However, Brandon recapped in many interviews that he was not able to enjoy his time in the NFL. He reports that he was miserable, despite all the material objects and money. Brandon also made headlines quite a few times for everything from arrests to team suspensions for insubordination.
In 2013, Brandon revealed that he had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
Impact: Brandon has been vocal about his recovery and treatment process. He continues to advocate for improved mental health care. He has co-founded Project 375, a non-profit centered around raising awareness, breaking the mental stigma and even raises funds to help provide care and invest in better treatment.
The 2020s have a lot to live up to. But if this decade shows us anything, it’s that the stigma behind mental health and athletes can be changed. Each person on this list has had an immeasurable impact on the way we view mental health and sports.
These past 10 years gives hope for a future in which mental health in sports can be normalized and celebrated. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed putting this list together.
Who would you add to this list—and why?