In a very open and honest interview with Der Spiegel (translated by Lewis Ambrose for Arseblog News), Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker talked about a topic that’s slowly been bubbling up the past few weeks in the world of athletics: mental health. He revealed many different aspects of how he struggles, copes, and overcomes a thing many in the world deal with on a daily basis, such as getting physically sick before matches, and how the pressures from competitions cause him, at times, to be thankful when they’re over.
The movement players, notably from the NBA, have assumed as of late in getting out the message of mental health and how they’re affected with a common illness has been nothing short of amazing. Charles Barkley once said that players aren’t role models, and while I understand what he was trying to say it was also incredibly inaccurate. Athletes are role models for every generation. They command attention, respect, inspiration, and represent the dreams of every kid learning and playing a sport that maybe, one day, they can compete on the same stage as their idols. As a parent, I hope that my two sons look to me for guidance, education, and a general understanding of how the world works. But also, I hope my two sons find in athletes a window into what could be if they apply themselves to anything they desire.
When I read interviews like the one Mertesacker gave, or essays from Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, and hear soundbites from Toronto Raptors forward DeMar DeRozan, it gives me hope that the historical taboo subject of mental health and how we individually suffer doesn’t hold the same negative stigma it once did. After all, if I am inherently driven to teach my boys the ways of the world and to instill in them the ability to speak about what they’re dealing with internally and then have three very objective examples of their sporting role models saying it’s OK to talk about this subject, then hopefully they’re more comfortable in dealing with this subject - something my generation can’t say was the case when they were growing up.
All of that brings me to how the media portrayed a few of Mertesacker’s comments. Take, for example, NBC Sports:
Or how ESPN presented his interview:
"i'd rather sit on the bench or -- even better -- in the stands [than play for Arsenal again]."— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) March 11, 2018
Future Gunners academy manager
These quotes strip away every single layer of context to why Mertesacker opened up, and what he talked about. This interview’s topic wasn’t about Per hating to play, this was an interview about why he feels this way. Again, this entire conversation was about mental health.
What these two media sources, unintentionally, did was potentially discourage another player from talking in the future about his or her struggles. I know if I was dealing with something and had an opportunity to discuss it to a trusting reporter in an honest manner, I’d be a bit leery now knowing anything I say can be twisted for the purpose of a cheap narrative.
Long story short, do better next time NBC Sports and ESPN. Support rather than dissuade. The media holds an extremely dangerous weapon and it’s up to them to decide how they utilize it.