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Thursday Cannon Fodder: understanding

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 5 Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There isn’t much to be said about Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the team and individual all-around gymnastics events at the Tokyo Olympics that hasn’t been said already. Despite my best efforts, I felt compelled to share some of my thoughts in the comments on yesterday’s CF. I’ve copied those comments below. Sorry in advance for the wall of text, but mental health is something I have extremely strong feelings on.

I want to focus on one thing in particular: there is an unspoken assumption / tenet at play here — that mental health and mental illness is somehow less serious or should be treated differently than physical injury. It shouldn’t be. Just because the symptoms aren’t outwardly apparent doesn’t mean they are any less serious. The twisties, anxiety, depression, addiction, etc. can be completely debilitating. Put it this way: we don’t expect people to play with a broken leg, so why do we expect them to play with a broken brain?

Apologies for what might come off as flippancy about mental illness in calling it a “broken brain” — it’s a coping / communication mechanism that I’ve used in the past when talking about my own struggles. Full disclosure: I have had multiple instances of depression that required therapy and medication, and I still deal with anxiety regularly. And I am living, breathing proof that no matter how low you might feel, it does get better.

My personal struggles touch on another important piece wrapped up in all of this — the toxic, destructive, and dangerous attitudes towards mental health that are still pervasive in society and are being espoused by some of the more repugnant commentaries on Biles’ decision. Those people (you know who I’m talking about and what they’re saying) are actively harming people, especially men, with their faux-macho, antiquated bullshit about how people are supposed to be tough.

People going through stuff right now are being actively harmed by the negative elements of this discourse. You know who doesn’t see or really care about your opinion that you put on social media or voice in conversation with people? The person you are talking about, in this case, Simone Biles. You know who does care? The friend who is dealing with something you don’t know about / they haven’t been able to share who sees your Facebook post or hears you slamming Biles for being soft while you’re all standing around at that dinner party.

It can be tough to have empathy / sympathy for people we don’t know and will never meet (but we should still try). It should be easier to have it for friends and family. I promise you, somebody you care about is going through something, even if you’re not aware of it.

Circling back to Biles a bit more. DustyGooner highlighted this portion of my comment from yesterday:

“If Simone Biles, who knows her body and mind better than anybody else, decides that she cannot and isn’t going to do what she is supposed to do, what her team is expecting her to do score-wise, who are we to question that decision?”

This is a deeply personal decision for Simone Biles. Indeed, the decision to play hurt, whether physically or mentally hurt, is an extremely personal one for any athlete. We are not inside their body or their head. We aren’t their doctor. We aren’t their teammate, coach, friend, or partner in whom they may have confided and explained what was going on. We all need to work on not substituting our own judgment for people when we cannot possibly know or understand the totality (or even a fraction) of the factors influencing their decision.

And let’s not forget the risks Simone Biles takes when she competes (even healthy). If she messes up a skill, she could seriously injure herself - broken bones, paralysis, or even death. She takes that risk even when she’s healthy and competing at her best.

That’s another point where the analogies to other top-level athletes start to fall apart. Yes, other sports are dangerous. Yes, people who play hurt do take risks. And yes, there are impressive and praiseworthy aspects to playing hurt. But I can confidently say that in all situations save cases at the absolute margins, Simone Biles faces more danger and risk than any other athlete.

Finally, I don’t have a second of time for people who might pull a muscle getting from the couch to the refrigerator whose last athletic “competition” was J.V. whatever 15-plus years ago opining on literally one of the greatest athletes of all time. You have absolutely no idea what she is going through. You cannot ever understand it. Your opinion carries no weight.

Just look at all the elite athletes — Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Naomi Osaka, and on and on — who have echoed Biles’ sentiments both after her decision and in campaigns of their own that long predate the past few days. Which side do you want to come down on?

/gets off soapbox

My comment from yesterday:

Whatever it is that Simone Biles is dealing with mentally — Nastia Liukin called it “the twisties” — is a mental injury that should be treated no differently than a physical one. If she had a sprained ankle that was preventing her from competing at her best, we wouldn’t bat an eye at her not competing or stepping out.

I think an arbitrary distinction between mental and physical ailments and a comparative lack of understanding of the impact of mental health on performance as compared to that of physical injury is at the heart of all the (good faith) disagreements.

Saying that she “choked” and comparing it to Tom Brady being “anxious and distracted” or LeBron not being “in the right mindset” is a poor way of describing what happened. See this thread.

tl;dr - her brain broke - whatever is going on made her unable to do something so practiced and drilled that it should be second nature. It would be akin to Tom Brady forgetting how to throw a football or LeBron forgetting how to shoot a jumper. You wouldn’t want them playing like that, would you?

Think about it this way - if one of those two guys (or any athlete) was so hurt that they couldn’t perform and were hurting the team, you’d want them subbed out, wouldn’t you? Whether it was them recognizing that they don’t have it today or the coach seeing it and taking them out, that would be what is “best” for the team, right?

She made the right decision for herself. She also made the right decision for the team, putting their needs above any sort of self-centered desire to compete or medal or try to “play through it” like we have (stupidly and wrongly) lionized in sport culture.

Playing through pain is impressive, there is no doubt about it. But think about all the historic, heroic examples in sports lore: the ones we remember and talk about are ones where the hurt athlete still played pretty darn well. We don’t really remember and talk about them, but I’m sure sports history is littered with guys trying to play through pain and stinking up the joint.

If Simone Biles, who knows her body and mind better than anybody else, decides that she cannot and isn’t going to do what she is supposed to do, what her team is expecting her to do score-wise, who are we to question that decision?

And to make that call in today’s culture that discounts mental health (thankfully that’s starting to change), under the brightest lights in a moment she has trained and geared the last five years of her life towards, and knowing what the fallout from her decision is going to be...that definitely seems praiseworthy to me.