By Leah Asmelash, CNN

Editor’s note: For more on athletes and mental health, tune in to CNN this Sunday for “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” at 10 p.m. ET.

(CNN) – A year ago, Simone Biles suddenly pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics after battling “twisties” – leaving other members of the US team to compete without her.

Biles’ movement has spread to Tokyo and around the world. In a moving interview after her retirement, Biles said she had to protect “her body and her mind”.

“Anytime you find yourself in a high-stress situation, you panic,” she told reporters at the time. “I need to focus on my mental health and not compromise my health and well-being.”

For longtime gymnastics fans, Biles’ move was somewhat unprecedented. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, for example, Kerri Strug broke her ankle on the vault, but continued to hurt herself. Team USA won gold that year. Strug retired shortly thereafter.

Athletes are often rewarded for giving their all to their sport, regardless of the impact on mental health. Coaches demand it; fans demand it.

But in recent years, a change has taken place. In a new episode of “United Shades of America,” which airs Sunday on CNN, host W. Kamau Bell digs deeper into the intense pressure facing some of the nation’s beloved athletes — and the true cost of victory for the nation. Mental Health.

Athletes are seen as artists rather than humans

Biles’ withdrawal was one of the most high-profile instances of an athlete speaking out about her mental health, but she’s not the only one doing it.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka has been open about her struggles with depression, going so far as to pull out of the French Open in 2021. This year, Brooklyn Nets’ Ben Simmons said he “had some dark times during his high-profile feud with his former team the Philadelphia 76ers. And at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, athletes from multiple sports spoke about the pressures Olympians face.

“I feel like it was a game-changer,” snowboarder Anna Gasser told The New York Times, of Biles’ retirement in Tokyo the year before. “Simone Biles’ message was that we are not just athletes – we are also humans and not robots.”

But this message has not always existed in the past. Especially given how much money many athletes make, there can be a tendency to pressure sports stars to perform no matter what the cost.

“(There’s) this idea that your health is irrelevant,” Boston Globe columnist and editor Renée Graham told Bell. “That your job is to be a show horse and go out and entertain people, and you make a lot of money doing it. That ugliness is inseparable from what professional sport is.”

Strug, the gymnast who broke her ankle at the 1996 Olympics, told her trainer, Bela Karolyi, that she wasn’t sure she could do the stunt on her injury. But Karolyi said she could, in a move that at the time was considered good practice, Bell said.

Since then, there have been numerous reports and allegations that Karolyi was physically and verbally abusive towards the women he coached. In response, Karolyi once said, “My gymnasts are the best prepared in the world, and they’re winning. That’s all that matters.”

Racism can intensify pressures on mental health

For athletes of color, racism can compound mental health issues because they also face all the challenges typical of their profession.

“Too often we think about things like ‘this is racism’ and ‘this is mental health’, and they’re separated,” said Kristi Oshiro, an assistant professor at Belmont University who has studied racism and its impact on athletes. “But in reality, it’s really complex and they inform each other.”

Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, was racially abused by tennis fans in 2001, during a finals match against Kim Clijsters in Indian Wells. Although Williams, only 19 at the time, won the match, she refused to play the tournament again until 2015.

“It was hard for me to forget spending hours crying in the locker room at Indian Wells after winning in 2001, returning to Los Angeles feeling like I had lost the biggest game of all time. – not just a tennis match but a bigger fight for equality,” Williams said of her comeback. “Emotionally, it seemed easier to stay away.”

The implications of the intersections of racism and mental health exist at all levels of the game, Oshiro said. With professional athletes, however, the tension can be more intense.

“For professional athletes, it’s a bit distinct and different because they’re expected to constantly compete and perform at this ridiculously elite level of play, while being open or vulnerable to criticism from people in the world. entire,” she said.

And in the age of the internet, those reviews can come from anywhere, in person or online.

Grant Williams is an NBA player for the Boston Celtics. He pays attention to any comments he gets from fans, he told Bell, especially if they’re racist.

“It’s hard not to notice it,” Williams said.

As more and more athletes speak out about the mental health pressures of their sport, the diversity of their stories is striking. From Biles and Osaka to the NBA’s Kevin Love and former college volleyball player Victoria Garrick – athletes of all ages, races and sports have all opened up about their mental health struggles, highlighting the different ways these problems may arise.

Oshiro is a former varsity athlete herself, having played softball at East Carolina University. Over the past 10 years, she said, conversations about mental health have evolved for the better.

“When I was playing in college, we not only lacked the relevant resources, but also the awareness and the language to describe the mental health issues or even the racism that we were experiencing at the time,” she said. . “It was like you knew you were going through some things, but you didn’t know it was maybe depression or anxiety.”

NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss started tear up on ESPN last year while discussing a racist email sent by former NFL coach Jon Gruden. At the time, some football fans called Moss “sweet” for letting his emotions show.

To create lasting change around perceptions of athletes’ mental health, Oshiro said, everyone involved should reconsider the way they think and talk about athletes — from fans to stakeholders. Even organizations can do a better job of not explicitly condoning the racism that can often be imposed on athletes of color.

But that’s not all that can be done. Access to mental health resources is also important, Oshiro said.

“When you look at how many things are available for the physical health of athletes – training facilities, weight rooms, etc. – there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure it’s even for mental health too. , ” she says.

And if we can’t care about both their physical fitness and their mental well-being, as Bell notes in Sunday’s episode, then maybe we don’t deserve athletes at all.

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