Mental Health in Sports

As May comes to a close, so does Mental Health Awareness month. But, the work doesn’t stop here. After two years of a pandemic, this year’s mental health awareness month was more important than ever, and we saw that demonstrated numerous times in professional sports.

Resources, support, and education are becoming more widespread each and every day. Whether it is your brother, neighbor, or your favorite professional athlete, everyone is finally starting to share the importance of taking care of your mental health. As May concludes, let’s look at mental health in sports.

Mental Health in the NBA

The NBA was one of the first major sports to be transparent about the mental health of its athletes. Mental health in basketball has been talked about since 2018, thanks to Kevin Love’s vulnerability.

Love bravely shared about his struggles with anxiety and depression after he suffered a panic attack during a game four years ago.

“For 29 years, I thought about mental health as someone else’s problem. Sure, I knew on some level that some people benefited from asking for help or opening up. I just never thought it was for me. To me, it was a form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different,” Love wrote in a letter for the Player’s Tribune.

He continued on in his letter to share how this mindset was incredibly toxic. It hindered his ability to truly be at peace with his success until he turned for help. For Love, “help” came in the form of talk therapy. Therapy helped him work through his thoughts and emotions and gave him the tools he needed to be his best self. His letter touched fans, coaches, and players alike. He gave others the outside validation they hoped for to seek help, and even inspired other professional athletes to share their stories as well.

In 2020, Jaylen Brown followed in Kevin Love’s footsteps and spoke out in support of mental health awareness. He expressed the importance of being open and honest about how you are feeling.

Love and Brown inspired athletes of many other sports to share their mental health struggles, reminding everyone they’re not alone, no matter how it may feel.

Changing the Way the NFL Approaches Mental Health

In 2019, the NFLPA and NFL created a Comprehensive Mental Health and Wellness Committee intended to encourage players to look after their mental well-being. These support systems have already benefited so many players, encouraging them to find the help they deserve.

In the last year, numerous “big name” players have opened up about their mental health. Last season, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, pulled himself out of the remainder of the season in order to seek treatment for his mental health. Ridley’s courageous acts impacted so many as people saw their favorite player take time to focus on himself.

Ridley’s bravery is complemented by many other star players. Athletes like AJ Brown, DJ Chark, Solomon Thomas, Dak Prescott, and Hayden Hurst are among the NFL players sharing their stories. We would be remiss to not acknowledge the impact this has on destigmatizing mental health in America. When children, teenagers, and young adults see their role models advocating for themselves, it inspires the next generation to do the same.

Well-Being Awareness in Other Athletics

Perhaps the biggest demonstration of mental health in sports over the last year came during the summer Olympics. Gymnastics powerhouse, Simone Biles, forfeited her place in the competition for her mental well-being. She was projected to bring home another gold medal, or many more gold medals, but her mind wasn’t in it. When she decided to withdraw from the competition for her mental well-being, it changed the way people look at the Olympics forever. They’re not just athletes, they’re people too. And they have bad days just like everyone else. The support she received stood tall above any criticism.

Many other athletes from many other sports have begun to stand tall in the face of mental health. Swimmer Michael Phelps, NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch, MLB pitcher Ryan Sherriff, and numerous other athletes have stepped away from their respective sports to get mental health assistance.

When professional athletes speak out about their mental health, it humanizes them in a way that many people often stray far from. Some get caught in a rhythm of picturing them as “figures” and “celebrities” instead of humans with lives that ebb and flow just like yours.  

Looking back a few years, it’s important to note the progress that we have made toward destigmatizing mental health, but there is still a long way to go. We must continue to support those going through tough times and encourage them to seek help. No job, no exam, and no game are as important as your mental well-being. Everyone deserves to feel like they are the best version of themselves. As Mental Health Awareness month comes to a close, check in on your mental health. How are you doing, truly? If you find yourself needing a listening ear or a little more help, there is no shame in reaching out.

Resources for Mental Health Assistance:

National Suicide Prevention: 1-800-273-8255

Veterans: 1-800-273-8255

The Trevor Project: (866) 488-7386

Substance Abuse Hotline: 1-800-662-4357

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233

Calvin Ridley suspended one year for gambling

Calvin Ridley’s 2022 season has ended before it began.

Ridley, the Atlanta Falcons star wide receiver, has been suspended for the entire 2022 NFL season.

Per reports from NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, the Falcons receiver was betting on games during the 2021 NFL Season. He will be eligible for reinstatement in February of 2023.

In the Garafolo report, he talks about how Ridley was gambling on NFL games in late November while Ridley was away from the team. To do such, he was using his cell phone to place parlay bets. Furthermore, a report by Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports confirmed something drastic: he bet on his own team.

In a statement made on the official team website, the Falcons stated: “We were first made aware of the league’s investigation on Feb. 9. We have cooperated fully with the investigation since receiving notice and support the league’s findings and actions. We are moving forward in the 2022 season with the decision that was made. With the decision that was made by the NFL, any further questions on the investigation should be directed to the league office.”

While teams were apparently contacting the Falcons for a trade, the team stayed put on the young man. Senior ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter also noted this was done in good faith knowing what was coming.

At first glance, this is a horrible look for the 27-year-old receiver out of Alabama. For one thing, gambling has been a problem in all sports, even with it becoming legalized throughout the country. However, not since the 1919 World Series has gambling involved an individual’s own team.

Calvin Ridley was already a controversial figure this past season for Atlanta fans, with the star choosing to opt out due to mental health issues that were occurring during the season. And now with news of a suspension, I can only imagine the star’s critics will continue to grow louder.

Atlanta Falcons Receivers: Breaking Down the 2022 Situation

Calvin Ridley is holding the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and tight end situation hostage and his decision will shape this group in 2022.

Calvin Ridley, a key player in the Atlanta Falcons receiving corps
Photo Credit: atlantafalcons.com

The Atlanta Falcons receivers group is arguably one of the worst in the 2021 NFL season. They have the least yardage of any wide receiver corps in the league. At tight end, it’s almost the reverse. They have generational talent Kyle Pitts as the starter and quite a few reserves that help out with blocking and can catch short routes as above average No. 2 tight end options. When it comes to groups that need an almost complete makeover this off-season, it’s this one.

Under Contract:

WR Calvin Ridley: 1 year, $11.116 million left on his contract

WR Frank Darby: 3 years, $2.973 million left on his contract

TE Kyle Pitts: 3 years, $26.927 million left on his contract and a potential fifth year option

Kyle Pitts is obviously going to be the primary option for the Atlanta Falcons group of receivers moving forward. He’s the only tight end 21 years or younger in NFL history to gain over 1000 yards. He’s a physical freak and as his routes and catching get more refined, he’s only going to be more impactful. Frank Darby is a very good long-term reserve option for the Falcons as a fourth option in the passing game and is under contract for very little money.

Calvin Ridley is the most unique situation in the NFL as he’s currently under a mental health leave from the league. Should the Falcons want to move on because they aren’t sure he’s in it for their team, they should trade him for the most value they can. It would free up cap space in the amount of $11 million. If he’s ready to go for the Falcons, he’d instantly be an option for No. 1 receiver. Ridley could lead the passing game and mentor Pitts to be an even better player than he is.

Exclusive Rights Free Agents:

WR Chad Hansen

WR Austin Trammell

TE Parker Hesse

TE John Raine

When looking at the exclusive rights free agents the Atlanta Falcons have in the receivers group, this looks like a few guys who can provide a little depth for the camp roster. The only person in this group who could be a regular contributor moving forward is Parker Hesse. Hesse is a good fit for the long-term blocking role in Arthur Smith’s offense. He’s shown abilities as a short-yardage outlet for the Falcons as a rookie and could continue a similar role for the team moving forward.

UPDATE: The Falcons re-signed Hesse, Raine, Hansen and Trammell on 1/10/2022.

Restricted Free Agents:

WR Olamide Zaccheaus

WR Christian Blake

TE Jaeden Graham

Restricted free agents are an interesting situation for the Falcons. While Christian Blake is an obvious non-tender option due to lack of production and lack of talent overall, Jaeden Graham and Olamide Zaccheaus had impacts during their first three years with the team. Zaccheaus and Graham should both be brought back, but ideally, they re-signed for under the original tender offer.

Unrestricted Free Agents:

WR Tajae Sharpe

WR Russell Gage

TE Hayden Hurst

TE Lee Smith

The biggest names from this group in terms of talent and production are Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst. Gage has proven to be a talented third or fourth receiving option in the offense and a good possession receiver needed for those tough third downs. Hurst has shown to be a solid blocker and a good fit for the Arthur Smith offense, but might be looking for a more expanded role in another offense. If the Falcons can get either guy back on a reasonable contract, they should do so.

Tajae Sharpe has been a decent fit for the Falcons as a tertiary receiver and possession guy, but he’s only shown that his value is as a veteran minimum player. If he comes back for that, bring him into camp. Otherwise, let him walk. The same can be said for Lee Smith. He’s been a good blocker, but not much else for the Falcons during the 2021 season.

Current Need

The Falcons need more playmakers moving forward regardless of who’s on the roster for 2022. As much as the team and fans love Kyle Pitts, he can’t do it on his own. Bringing in a competent and talented option to play as the No. 2 to him or even a No. 3 role to him and Calvin Ridley should be a priority for the future. Free agent options to consider that would fill that role include Allen Robinson, Allen Lazard, Juju Smith-Schuster, A.J. Green and Emmanuel Sanders.

At tight end, the Falcons could consider bringing in options that might be able to mentor Kyle Pitts while also working in a similar tight end/wide receiver setting. Jimmy Graham, Zach Ertz and Jared Cook are names that spring to mind that may not break the bank while still providing what is needed. Outside of that, going bargain options for a blocking tight end makes the most sense.

Potential Future Need

In this situation, the potential future need is the same as the current need. The Falcons don’t have a hard contract situation to deal with at this position, but the Calvin Ridley situation brings forth a lot of questions. If Ridley does come back to the Falcons and signs long-term, this would help the Falcons have their No. 1 option settled for the future and remove what this need is.

What the Plan Should Be Moving Forward

The plan moving forward should first be to figure out what Calvin Ridley wants to do. If he wants to be in Atlanta, keep him and set him up long term to be the No. 1 guy. If he doesn’t, trade him for assets that can be used moving forward. If he doesn’t, the Falcons biggest need in this group is a true, playmaking No. 1 wide receiver. And whether they address it in the draft or free agency is to be determined.

Once that situation is determined, figure out the rest of the Atlanta Falcons receivers group and tight end group to complement the strengths and weaknesses of the No. 1 and Kyle Pitts. Having multiple options out there, the Falcons could go in a plethora of directions. What they end up doing isn’t fully up to them due to the Ridley situation, though.

Preseason Preview: Week 2 Falcons @ Dolphins

Dolphins ATB and Falcons ATB break down their respective offseasons, training camp and expectations ahead of Week 2 of preseason.

Acknowledgement:

Before we delve into the game preview, I would just like to thank and credit Hunter Thompson of Falcons ATB, for his contributions and insights in putting together this preseason matchup article.

Training Camp

Q. What do you hope your team will gain from the joint practices held in Miami?

Falcons:

HT: “I hope the team really decides to step up and compete and stays tough and physical with Miami this week. I know going against new players is huge for development, so I hope we see them gain confidence and have good meaningful reps.”

Dolphins:

Heading into the joint practices with the Chicago Bears, I stated how the primary focus would be how to deal with the mobility of Justin Fields. The starting defense to a certain extent did manage to contain Fields, however never really exerted a lot of pressure with Fields having all day in the pocket never really needing to scramble. Coming into the second week of preseason, the Dolphins will face its second kryptonite; elite receiving tight ends. Facing the likes of Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst, all eyes will be on Eric Rowe and the rest of the Dolphins’ defense as to how they contain the threat that Pitts poses.

Coming out of the 2021 NFL Draft, Pitts’ NFL comparison was Darren Waller, a player that torched Eric Rowe Week 16, despite him being right on him nearly every play. Rowe v Pitts will be the biggest matchup to watch out for. Also look out for how Miami’s linebackers especially Jerome Baker looks in coverage.

Nevertheless, the receiving threat posed by the Falcons extends far beyond containing Pitts, especially with the likes of Calvin Ridley coming off the back of a 1,374 yd season where he averaged 15.3 YPC. The whole secondary will for sure be tested after a very good first week of preseason.

UPDATE: Following the first day of joint practice, the battle has been as anticipated. Thankfully for Dolphins fans, aside from the play shown above, by most accounts Eric Rowe had a fantastic day.

Highlight of the day would be where Rowe had a PBU on a touchdown pass intended for Pitts.

Q. A lot of Dolphins fans had their hearts set on Kyle Pitts, how has he performed so far?

HT: “We have yet to see Pitts play in the Falcons uniform, but based on the Training camp we’ve been hearing, he is a standout in camp. He is helping fill the hole left by Julio Jones when he got traded to Tennessee. If Pitts plays this game, look for him to take over the game if he is as good as he is being advertised. “

Fan Q. How strong is the receiving unit this season without Julio? How much involvement do you anticipate Russell Gage having this year? Is he the definite WR2?

HT: “The receiving unit without Julio will look very different. Look for the Falcons to implement a lot of two tight end looks to take advantage of having both Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst on the roster. And for Gage, look for him to be a potential flex option or low-end WR2 for you and your fantasy team. I think he will still be the third option, but who knows for certain.”

Preseason

Q. How did you fare Week 1 of preseason? What went well? Who stood out? What/who concerns you?

Falcons:

HT: “We lost 23-3. And it was a tough game all the way around, we struggled in the trenches on offense and only amassed 139 total yards. Nothing really on offense went well which is concerning, but the defense actually had some standouts in Ogundeji and JTM at the EDGE positions. Marlon Davidson (who is out this week) also managed to stand out in the DL department.”

Dolphins:

The Good:

Despite losing 20-13, the Dolphins started preseason very positively. Box scores in such games are largely irrelevant. The Dolphins starters and second team played very well. By the half, the Bears had barely managed a first down against a defense not featuring, Howard, Jones, Phillips or Ogbah. The offense were successful at moving the ball down field with Tua going 8/11 and 99 yards. However, Miami did struggle in the red zone, being stopped on the goal line and then the eventual pick to end Tua’s evening. Nevertheless, I would not be worried about this, as Tua has excelled in red zone drills all throughout camp.

Stand out performers include Tua (despite INT), Justin Coleman (the one man hit sticking machine, who needs to learn to wrap players up), Nik Needham, Mack Hollins, Eric Rowe, Salvon Ahmed, Jakeem Grant and Noah Igbinoghene who made some good plays, despite a rather troublesome camp.

The Bad and the Ugly:

Without sounding like too much of a broken record, the offensive line struggles exhibited during Week 1 of preseason will be the primary focus heading into Saturday’s game. Facing the Bears elite defensive line, the offensive line was decimated throughout the first day of joint practice. Despite some bounce back during the second day of practice, the offensive line remained an issue heading into the preseason debut. While the starting pass protection was fairly good, with Tua Tagovailoa complementing the line for giving him a relatively clean pocket, run blocking was almost none existent.

As Chris Spooner eluded to in his recent article, the left side of the line including Austin Jackson and Solomon Kindley was especially problematic in establishing the run. Consequently, PFF gave Kindley a 45.7 run-blocking grade while Austin Jackson graded even worse scoring a dreadful 38.1.

For a full recap of the game, go check out Tanner Elliott’s post game analysis.

Q. What are your expectations going into the game? What do you hope the team takes away from it?

Falcons:

HT: “I am going into this game with low expectations for a few different reasons. Mainly because it’s the preseason and I don’t think the game itself matters as much as meaningful reps for each player. Last week we saw a few standouts even though we as a team struggled, and that’s the biggest plus of the preseason for me. But I hope we see the offensive line step it up. Last week against the Titans the line struggled the entire game and we can’t afford two weeks of that. When the line struggles it makes the evaluation process for skill positions so much harder.”

Dolphins:

Going into the second preseason game, the main thing I hope to see is consistency. If Tua can string together another couple of good series to his depleted options at receiver, it will be a success, even against a shaky Falcons secondary. I would like to see a lot more of Jaylen Waddle in this game as a receiver, as he left week one without a catch. I would also like to see more of our pass rush in getting pressure in at the QB.

However, all eyes will be on how the offensive line performs. As aforementioned, pass blocking was relatively good during the first game. I want to see this continue with consistency while beginning to open up running lanes for the backs. The return of Liam Eichenberg can bring some optimism to fans, although I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Q. Are there any injury concerns affecting the team heading into the game?

Falcons:

HT: “I don’t really have any major concerns coming in, I’d like to see Marlon Davidson playing in the game, but it is what it is.”

Dolphins:

In contrast with that of Atlanta, Miami’s situation is a lot more tenuous, especially at wide receiver. As I stated in a previous article when healthy the Dolphins have an elite receiving threat, however we are yet to see it. Coming into the first day of joint practice, the following receivers were missing:

In addition, Preston Williams remains on PUP and Allen Hurns has been placed on IR.

While availability for a preseason game is not a big issue for the likes of Parker and Fuller, until those players are on the field we will not see the full capability of this offense. With the offensive line woes many people have questioned the decision to pass on Penei Sewell. However, with the options at receiver now, thank god for Jaylen Waddle.

Outside of the receiving room Jaelan Phillips returned to practice this week, but given his value, he will be brought back form injury very slowly, making him an outsider to feature heavily in the second preseason game. Liam Eichenberg, Brandon Jones and Ogbah have all returned to practice this week. Rookie TE Hunter Long has been dressed for practice, but has not participated in team drills due to ongoing pain stifling his return.

Q. Which player on the other team scares you the most?

Falcons:

HT: “Jaylen Waddle. 100%. His explosiveness is concerning for the young defense we are going to be fielding.”

Dolphins:

Calvin Ridley no doubt. His route running is truly elite and one of the most technically gifted receivers in the game. Any one who can torch Xavien Howard the way he did in camp, deserves fearing.

Q. What are your expectations going into the season?

Falcons:

HT: “We are at a weird point where we are retooling the roster while still trying to be competitive, which looks strange. But looking at what we did in the draft and how some of those picks are playing we are running a pretty decent first offseason under the new regime. But that also makes this conversation difficult because no one really knows what to expect from this current roster. Some fans are expecting a playoff push, while others are expecting another top 10 draft pick.”

Dolphins:

Dolphins fans you will just have to keep your eyes peeled for the Dolphins ATB staff’s expectations and season prediction article in the coming weeks.

Conclusion

Once again I would like to thank Hunter for his help and insights throughout this article. Be sure to go follow him on Twitter. Many have predicted this game to be the “dress rehearsal” for the season with the final game intended for those players on the edge of the roster. As such expect Tua to get more reps and thus hopefully more highlights for us fans to revel over until the season. Fins Up!

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