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Tuesday Cannon Fodder: athlete mental health

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French Open Tennis. Roland-Garros 2021. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

This morning, I woke to the news that the Washington Football Team had hired a psychologist to be the team’s director of wellness and clinical services, making them one of seven teams in the NFL to employ a full-time mental health professional. The news comes on the heels of Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open because of the tournament’s response (fining and threatening to disqualify her) to her decision to not attend her press conferences because of the discomfort and anxiety they cause her.

I’d recommend doing some additional reading, especially responses / takes on Osaka’s situation. There have been some good, thoughtful pieces written and some callous, misguided, bad ones as well. Obviously, you have to decide on your own where you come down and which takes make sense, but here’s a hint: if the piece faults Naomi Osaka or criticizes her for prioritizing her own mental health or the manner in which she chose to care for herself, it’s almost certainly a bad take.

If you’re a regular CF reader, you’ll know that I’ve always been direct and open about where I stand when it comes to mental health. It matters. And we all have an obligation to help destigmatize mental illnesses so that people can feel more comfortable seeking the care they need. Awareness and openness is especially important today, as we all continue to deal with the effects of a global pandemic.

We expect athletes to take care of their physical shape and fine-tune their bodies for maximum performance on the field (for our entertainment, I might add). The mental health side is just as important. An athlete almost certainly cannot perform at his or her peak while injured. In essence, that’s all someone dealing with a mental health issue is — injured. With the right medical attention, care, and recovery time, they are likely to heal and return to the field. And it’s really not about getting back on the field, anyway. It’s about a human being’s ability to live a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. Playing sports to entertain us is a distant secondary concern.

I applaud Naomi Osaka’s decision. I hope that she is able to get whatever it is that she needs in her time away from the court. And I hope her courage in taking a stance helps move the conversation about mental health and the role that sports, the press, and fans play in it forward.