Changing the stigma: Athletes have feelings, too

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“We all got feelings.”

On Feb. 17, 2018, then-Toronto Raptors’ guard DeMar DeRozan tweeted out that he was currently in a fight against depression, sparking an outpour of conversation regarding mental health in professional sports. Apart from a tough upbringing, the constant scrutiny a player of DeRozan’s caliber on a nightly basis will take its toll.

You don’t perform, you get attacked.

If the verbal and cyber assaults against professional athletes on a daily basis are purely due to on-the-court play then, okay, maybe one can suck those up and deal with it. Many “fans”, however, do not see the same way. Players like DeRozan will get battered about their character, morals, appearance, and pretty much anything unrelated to sports if they cannot live up to expectations.

Just weeks after DeRozan’s tweet, Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward Kevin Love released a Players’ Tribune article discussing his battles with anxiety and panic attacks and has gone on to share his story in a handful of interviews.

Love and DeRozan, who have combined for nine All-Star appearances, are always under the public spotlight. One wrong move, and seemingly the entire world is out to get you.

These individuals have families, struggles and worries just like the rest of us, all while having to keep up an image of perfection, as they are instructed to be role-models and “never show vulnerability.”

Though the average NBA fan on Twitter may believe that saying a player “doesn’t deserve to be alive” after a poor performance is just a joke, when an athlete reads and hears comments of that nature hundreds of times over, there is no way it won’t get into their heads.

And while DeRozan received support from sports fans around the world after his confession, plenty of degrading comments rained in afterward. He was called “soft” and “ungrateful” for claiming to be depressed while simultaneously making millions of dollars playing basketball.

These vile fan interactions don’t always get all the media attention either. Kawhi Leonard, one of the world’s very best, is known for having an extremely shy, reserved personality both on and off-the-court. Throughout his entire career, he has been hit by pressure to “loosen up” and to “stop being a robot”.

Well, just a few weeks ago, at the 2018 NBA opening press conference, he let out a small laugh as a response to a question.

What happened after? Thousands and thousands of people online mocking and making fun of his laugh.

A man who was already suspected of having social anxiety was flat out bullied for finally showing some of his true personality.

While Laura Ingraham’s famous “Shut up and dribble” comment directed at LeBron James was more a retort against athletes expressing political views, the remark represents an overall dehumanization of professional players as a whole. Fans expect them to be machines, churning out stats and wins, while they fail to recognize that each and every athlete lives a personal life off the court and away from the cameras.

DeRozan has willingly admitted that he sees a therapist and suggests that others seek help for any problems that they are dealing with. To break the stigma, athletes also have the responsibility of stepping outside of their comfort zone and letting people know that they can accomplish seemingly impossible stuff, like playing in the best professional basketball league in the world, while simultaneously dealing with mental illnesses previously unseen by the outside world.

The thing about depression and anxiety is that they don’t care who you are. They will go after any race, religion, gender, profession, class. It doesn’t matter. So next time a fan thinks about going after an athlete, or anybody for that matter, hopefully, the effect of words and actions makes them think twice.

Shailin Singh is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].