Most athletes are comfortable talking about injuries, so long as they can point to a bruise, a bandage, a cast or a spot on an X-ray. Some will even venture an educated guess at how long they might take to heal. Their mental health is a different story.
Or at least it was before Naomi Osaka ended a damaging standoff with top tennis officials by withdrawing from the French Open earlier this week, citing concerns for her well-being. It marked the first time a major star walked away from a major tournament without a visible injury. Judging by the reaction, it appeared Osaka landed on the third rail of sports.
Other athletes, notably Olympian Michael Phelps, spoke candidly about mental-health issues before. Some, like Los Angeles Lakers great Jerry West, detailed their struggles in books only after their playing days were long over. Still others wrestled that tortured secret for a lifetime.
None of them sparked a conversation this wide, in no small part because of what was at stake and a very public back-and-forth that played out on social media. How much more oxygen it draws going forward likely depends on Osaka, already a four-time major champion at age 23; whether more athletes follow her lead; and if so, how fans and the sports establishment react.
“When someone tears an ACL, it’s 6-8 months, we know the time frame. And like with everything else in life, we want a finite number. But that’s not how mental health works,” said Dr. Wendy Borlabi, a Chicago-based performance psychologist who works with pro, Olympic and college athletes.
“People are different, we experience things differently, but we all want the process to say, ‘This is what you do to get better.’ … It’s not that simple. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all,’” she continued. “But the more we talk about mental health in the open, the more we put the stigmatism behind us, especially in sports. This is a big opportunity.”
There’s a long list of athletes who could have benefitted from the chance. Some may still.
In recent years, NBA players Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan and the WNBA’s A’ja Wilson have spoken very publicly about their bouts with depression, sharing both the successes and setbacks. Baseball fans of a certain age remember the late Jimmy Piersall, portrayed in the move “Fear Strikes Out,” and whose 17-year major league career was littered with well-publicized fistfights, scrapes and stunts — all while he was battling bipolar disorder.