Mental health in sports: an unpopular, but necessary topic

By Jeremy O’Neill
Executive Staff

The world of sports has never been particularly sensitive to feelings, and descriptions of human emotional states rarely go beyond “the thrill of victory; the agony of defeat.” These emotions, although frequently associated with athletics and slim margin between success and failure that proves addictive to so many, are fleeting. So when discussions of mental states off the field comes into athletic discourse, there is often an awkward silence. In short, sports have never had a great deal of room for the sensitive and emotional people among us. “Nice guys finish last,” as the old saying goes. 

As a result of this, the world of sports has always turned a conveniently blind eye to issues of mental health that impact so many, both on and off the field. One of the problems football and hockey leagues are facing in the midst of a crisis regarding concussions and player safety is that, by their very nature, athletes who participate in high contact, physical sports are unwilling to admit or talk in detail about injuries, both internal and external. This seems to be a matter of pride and as a fear of being ridiculed by their peers or supporters.

This leads us to the events of October 17, 2019, and arguably the bravest player in baseball today. The Houston Astros faced the New York Yankees in the Bronx in game four of the American League Championship Series. Yankee stadium was predictably electric, loud, and raucous as the hometown fans cheered on their team in hopes of keeping their World Series hopes alive. Scheduled to pitch for the Astros was former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, facing off with right handed Japanese star Mashiro Tanaka. While both pitchers are exceptionally talented, and have great stories, but Grienke’s is more relevant to this article.

While warming up for one of the most important games of his career, Greinke was faced with the usual boos and heckling from the never forgiving New York fans. The usual negative comments about his hair, his appearance, his pitching rained down on him. This is a scene not particularly exceptional in Major League Baseball and across professional sports. It is something athletes acknowledge, deal with, and even use as motivation. This is all well and good good natured fun, but soon the comments strayed away from degrading Greinke’s fastball, and on to his mental health. 

The Astros pitcher’s life has been plagued with severe anxiety and depression, to the point where he has flirted with quitting baseball altogether. Thankfully for him, and for Major League Baseball, Greinke has since been prescribed more effective antidepressants, which he has described as changing his life. The Yankees fans chose to highlight Greinke’s misfortune, launching horrible insults at him for being depressed and socially anxious, while also degrading his family. However, Greinke clearly was unfazed, as he pitched a solid start to the game, striking out five while only giving up one earned run on three hits. 

The fans’ choice to mock Greinke for his mental health struggles is obviously disgraceful, but shows a greater problem of lack of awareness of mental health issues both in sports and in our country. This isn’t the first time Greinke’s struggles with anxiety and depression have come into the news for a public misunderstanding. A front office staff member of an opposing organization once was quoted calling Greinke “Rain Man,” after the Dustin Hoffan movie of the same name profiling the struggles of a man with autism. 

Greinke may have been one of the only professional athletes to actually talk about his mental health struggles, but these issues affect many more people than the general public. Talking about these issues takes bravery, and the symptoms of these struggles are often difficult to notice. In the midst of our campus-wide “Let’s Talk” campaign, now is a great time to try and foster dialogue about mental health issues, especially in areas where these issues are not normally discussed.