Being a Millionaire Athlete Doesn't Make You Immune to Mental Health Problems. So Stop Being a Jerk.
Updated: Dec 18, 2018
If you haven't read Derrick Goold's fantastic piece on Dexter Fowler, stop what you're doing and read it right now. It took a lot of courage for Dexter to admit his struggles with depression. And the way Goold brought out the human element was a thing of beauty. It was especially encouraging to see that Mo and Fowler have patched things up after Mo publicly questioned his effort last year.
As fans, it's easy to just look at the stat columns and lose sight of the fact that baseball players are, in fact, human beings. The reaction on social media has been for the most part positive, but there have been a few trolls on the fringe out there that don't seem to understand this very basic fact. Now I realize there's a certain free agent outfielder available who is a once-in-generation talent. And Fowler is now 32-years old and fell off the proverbial cliff last year, and still has about $50 million left on his contract.
With the Cardinals missing the playoffs three straight seasons in a row, fans don't want to hear excuses. Especially from someone who is making more money in a couple of days than most of us do in a month. Plus, he does get to play baseball for a living. Isn't that every little boy's dream? Plus he's got a gorgeous wife, he's a World Series champion and seemingly has it all. Suck it up and play, right?
Well, no. If you think that way, I hate to break it to you, saying stuff like this makes you just sound like a heartless jerk. If you spew garbage like this, please do the world a favor and delete your Twitter account until you can learn to be a decent human being. Step away from the keyboard. You are acting like a coward with a very shallow understanding of the human condition.
We need to remember that "having it all" doesn't make someone exempt from struggling with depression. Deion Sanders contemplated committing suicide after winning the Super Bowl. Junior Seau eventually did commit suicide. He's not the only professional athlete to do so. Brandon Marshall has devoted his life to helping people with mental illness after struggling with depression himself. And Cardinal fans, of all people, should be gracious to players who are struggling with mental health.
We all remember Rick Ankiel, right? You know, the one we stood up and cheered for every time he attempted a comeback? Ankiel has written a whole book about his own mental health battles in his book, "The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life." Ankiel turned to marijuana and vodka to calm himself down before he got help.
Ankiel said: “It was beyond frightening and scary," he says. "We’re getting paid millions, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to inner pain and torture.”
I can easily see how being a professional athlete could lead to anxiety and depression. I'm not asking you to feel extra sorry for them - trust me, I'd love to get paid the way they do. And the kid in me would love to play baseball for a living.
But here's the thing: If your identity is in how much money you make, your athletic ability or what you do for a living, you stand to lose it. And for an athlete, these are things that fade quickly. You hit your peak in your twenties and maybe early thirties and it's downhill from there. And to see your skill evaporate all of a sudden, seemingly unable to regain it, could trigger extreme anxiety, even in the mentally toughest people.
Plus many athletes - think Allen Iverson - aren't always super smart about managing their finances. So you have all these things that can just come and go in seemingly a flash.
Not to get super-philosophical, we human beings all have this death denial complex going on. In his 1973 book The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that pretty much everything we do is a way of managing the fear of our own demise and the demise of those we love around us.
The only way around managing this fear is finding something above and beyond ourselves, a higher purpose if you will that transcends death. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called this anxiety the "sickness unto death". OK, now I am getting super-philosophical and I'm way oversimplifying Kierkegaard, but bear with me.
The point I'm making is this: If your identity is in anything you stand to lose, you're probably gonna deal with depression and anxiety at some point in your life. If you're an athlete, the things you find your identity in are way more prone to slip away faster. With money, athletes have an easier time trying to fill that vacuum with recreation, big houses, fast cars, and for some athletes fast, women, alcohol and partying.
I won't get into all the gory details, but I've suffered from depression and anxiety for years. It was only until recent years have I been able to shake it. And the only way that I've found to do that is to come to grips with this is by accepting the reality of death, putting my faith in someone transcendent (as Kierkegaard did) and then doing what I can to enrich the lives of others rather than living for myself. (Side note: This weekend I happened to stumble across this story on Chris Carpenter and how he also struggled with alcoholism and depression before finding this same kind of meaning later in his career here). For some of you, that might start with not being a jerk about pro athletes not being mentally tough, or saying they need to suck it up and be a man. Maybe you should step away from your keyboard and doing something with your life of real value. If you're honest with yourself, you deal with the same stuff, just in a different way. People are bigger than the game that they play. The value of a person isn't measured by their WAR.
If I were in Fowler's cleats, or Ankiel's, I probably would've fell even harder. We need to realize that money, athletic ability and dream jobs are fleeting and (*shock*) don't make everyone automatically bulletproof to depression. Let's deal with our own issues. I don't mean to preach, I know that's not necessarily what you expect here. And what I'm saying might not represent everyone's views at BOTB. I promise I'll stick more to analysis in the future.
But I'll finish with this: I'm absolutely going to be in Fowler's corner this season. You should be too. If Cardinal fans are going to boast that they are the "Best Fans in Baseball(©)" then we need to start remembering players are people too. Depression sucks. Remember compassion.