Pro Sports Leagues Need a Game Plan to Tackle Mental Health

Despite the increased awareness about mental health, sufferers of mental illnesses are still misunderstood and lack the resources they need to seek help. The stigma surrounding mental health continues to linger today due to insufficient knowledge and resources. Disappointingly, professional athletes do not have access to suitable resources within their respective leagues to properly manage their mental illnesses.

This year for the National Basketball Association (NBA) can set an unprecedented example for all professional sports leagues. With the increasing number of professional athletes publicly sharing their struggle with mental illness, the NBA can be the forerunner in modernizing mental health initiatives. The new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to take effect in 2017. With no policies currently in place for adequate mental health management, hopes are high that the new seven-year contract will include momentous changes with respect to athletes’ psychological well-being. Former NBA player Royce White believes his career was squandered because of “a pro sports culture that dismisses the importance of mental health.” White suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anxiety, and has a notable fear of flying.

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He was a first round NBA draft pick in 2012 for the Houston Rockets but unfortunately “never played for Houston, as he and the team struggled to agree on the best course of action to deal with White’s mental illness.” In 2013 he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, but was released before the season commenced. White’s anxiety in regards to flying made travelling extremely difficult due to the rigorous travel schedule required for games. To make matters worse, the NBA would not exempt him from team flights even with the knowledge of his anxiety. Following his short-lived NBA career, White joined the London Lightning in the National Basketball League of Canada. He is now an advocate for those suffering from mental health and plays an influential role in the endeavour to include psychological health in the player wellness policy for the new 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

It is disappointing that such prominent professional sports leagues, such as the NBA, do not have proper written guidelines with respect to mental health. Amendments to the policy such as the addition of experienced therapists, support networks, and information presented to rookies during training camps will assist athletes struggling with mental illness as well as educate other players. Concerns for physical health continue to surpass those for mental health, both on and off the basketball court. Unfortunately due to the stigma surrounding mental health, physical ailments commonly receive more care and consideration. Lindsay Holmes of the Huffington Post reported that “According to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], only 25 percent of people with mental health issues feel that other people are compassionate and sympathetic toward them”. Professional athletes have experienced physicians and trainers who rush to their side the moment they go down with a physical injury.

According to, Benjamin Shaffer, an orthopaedic surgeon “Most of the time, the pros get a prompt assessment and treatment by experienced trainers” until they are game ready again. In addition to experienced medical staff, professional athletes also have access to specialized technology and equipment to help speed up recovery time. For instance, Kobe Bryant tore his left Achilles tendon during an NBA game and readily recovered as a result of the exceptional treatment he received, including the use of an AlterG – the Anti-Gravity treadmill. It is designed for astronauts, but it allows recovering athletes to run without the potential risk factor of gravity causing further harm to injuries. This exceptional piece of equipment is not typically used by trainers for amateur athletes due to its cost and reimbursement concerns. Unfortunately mental illnesses are not treated with the same degree of severity as physical injuries.

The league needs to acknowledge mental illness as a serious concern, Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star notes “two years ago Milwaukee Bucks guard Larry Sanders left the NBA midway through his fourth season, and later checked into a hospital to receive treatment for depression and anxiety.” In addition, Delonte West was diagnosed in 2008 with bipolar disorder and left the league four years after his diagnosis. NBA athletes would not have to end their career due to their mental health if proper policies were in place. The new NBA seven-year contract can change the negligence of the league with respect to their athletes’ mental wellness if they implement a new mental health policy. Such policy should include educating athletes prior to their arrival in the NBA and should also provide resources throughout their career to aid mental health. Not only should professional sports leagues assist athletes with treatment for mental health issues but they should also be proactive and educate incoming athletes prior to the commencement of their first season.

Leagues need to be educated on the disheartening number of people influenced by mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Anxiety disorders affect 40 million Americans 18 and older, and 26.2% of Americans 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year,”. The NBA must recognize the importance of a healthy mind and provides all athletes will equal access to both physical and psychological therapists. In addition, players should be aware of their resources and possible accommodations provided by the league.

By adding a mental health guideline to the wellness policy in the new 2017 contract, the NBA will better equip athletes with the knowledge and support needed to perform in both a mentally and physically healthy state.