‘Next Man or Woman Up’ syndrome puts too much pressure on some athletes
DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Marshall and Chamique Holdsclaw have talked about mental health issues affecting their lives
We’re in a big moment for sports fanatics. Last week, the NFL hosted its annual draft, where teams were on the hunt for the next Russell Wilson or Ezekiel Elliott.
Everyone wants to win. As coach Herm Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game.” Winning games brings success. And success brings money. But in a culture where winning comes before everything else, how much does it cost black players to lose?
Almost every competitor in professional sports is familiar with the concept of the “Next Man Up.” The idea is that a player must always be ready to play his best because when he can’t play his best, the next man is up. And the “next man” knows that if he performs at a high level, he could secure his position long term.
For example, Dak Prescott took over for injured quarterback Tony Romo in 2016 and has remained the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback ever since.
As a licensed couples and family therapist who specializes in working with relationship issues, men and professional athletes, I’ve worked with clients of all backgrounds. At the same time, my work with black athletes has allowed me to hear their struggles of balancing playing at a high level to keep their career going while maintaining their mental health.
One of my clients, a former player, shared, “I got injured, lost my spot, and even after rehab, I wasn’t as fast as I used to be. They cut me, and eventually I felt my only option was to retire.”
This led him to struggle with life after football, difficulties in his relationship and disconnection from his children. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
The message the industry sends black athletes is clear: “Don’t lose a step, don’t get injured, don’t admit weakness (physical or mental) because if you do, someone is waiting to take your spot.” As stated above, many athletes experience constant worry about maintaining their starting position. This is the embodiment of anxiety, which is defined by “feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes.”
“There are at least two to three other guys on the team that play my position,” one of my clients said. “After I got injured, I was benched and my name came up frequently in trade rumors.”
He was depressed and needed help but couldn’t allow himself to trust me until almost a year of therapy. About 25 percent of African-Americans seek mental health care, compared with 40 percent of whites, mainly due to stigma, shame, distrust, misdiagnosis and socioeconomic concerns.
The pressure to remain a starter has many implications, including loss of the position, career, money, family and more. The impact of such significant losses can create depression for many players, and they have for clients in my field for decades.
In the sporting world, unreported depression and anxiety are rampant. And “Next Man Up” syndrome feeds into the issue. Don’t be misled to think this is just for male sports leagues — this issue carries across all sports for all genders. Chamique Holdsclaw, a former WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, shared her personal experience and family history of mental illness with ESPN. “I wasn’t honest about needing help. I was just going through the motions, trying to keep stuff together. … The mental health component of sports is missing.”
Next Man or Woman Up syndrome benefits one player while potentially prompting a mental health crisis for another. The importance of mental health and how it impacts everyday life has been undervalued for far too long.
In the past few years, black athletes have fought through the stigma to share their stories, struggles and successes with their mental health. In one tweet, DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors declared to the world, “This depression get the best of me …” DeRozan went on to say in an interview that his anxiety and depression, “it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”
Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver who was recently released from the New York Giants, has shared numerous times about his experience with borderline personality disorder. “Man, if you would have asked me eight years ago what does mental health mean to me, I would have said mental toughness,” he told USA Today.
“As football players, we are taught to never show weakness, to never give an opponent an edge. To open up when something hurts, in our culture, is deviant. But when you really sit down and think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.”
Not every athlete hoping to maintain a roster spot struggles with a mental illness. But if we don’t work harder to remove the stigma of talking about and treating mental illness, it will continue to be difficult to discern which athletes need treatment to continue playing at a high level.
The time has come to stop devaluing the importance and necessity of mental health education and treatment in the professional sports world and beyond, because what we see in the public from celebrities, athletes and entertainers highlights what many others are experiencing daily.