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

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.