It is okay to be afraid
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I was born and raised in Ohio and in the Latter-Day Saint community. I still consider myself a religious person, but growing up surrounded by Lake Wobegon values, and in an austere religious community, led me to become uncomfortable with loud, public religious proclamations. It's not that Midwestern Mormons don't believe in God. It's just that we're not good at talking about any feelings, so when I see public preaching and proclamations, my first impulse is usually an aw jeez who is this guy sort of thing.
Living in the South was, uh, a big cultural adjustment for me.
But even with all of that baggage, I have to admit, I was legitimately moved when I saw this last week.
In this clip, ESPN's Dan Orlovsky, while discussing Damar Hamlin's road to recovery, is moved to pray, on camera. Orlovsky prays for strength, healing, and comfort for Damar and his family while acknowledging the fear and anger that comes from suffering that we do not immediately understand.
Perhaps you felt that Dan's decision was inappropriate or self-aggrandizing; I didn't feel that way, and it doesn't appear that his colleagues felt that way either. But I'm not especially interested in litigating that particular point. What struck me, and moved my own grinchy heart, was how this deviation from a typical sports broadcast demonstrated the true severity of Damar's situation–how it spoke to a true concern, and even fear, from the football community.
Despite our best efforts, football is a dangerous game. It's always been a dangerous game. At the college level, it's a dangerous game played by many individuals who haven't truly grappled with their own mortality yet, who think they're bulletproof, who think that bad things happen to other people, at other times. That's not a condemnation of college football players; it's simply a reality of being twenty.
But bad things sometimes don't happen to distant, other people. Sometimes, they happen to us, or people we love, or people we compete with. Those moments are always scary, but I suspect the first time they really happen, the first time you truly understand that debilitating, life-altering injury, or even death, can happen to you or your peers, can be especially traumatic.
I suspect, and perhaps I am wrong, that a tiny part of the reason so many in the football community reacted as strongly as they did over Hamlin's injury wasn't just because of the severity of the injury, or because they loved Hamlin, although it was severe, and they did love him. I suspect it was also because it is a direct reminder that this could happen to any of them, any of their teammates, any of their friends...in front of 65,000 people and on live television.
We are not guaranteed tomorrow. We're not even guaranteed the next snap. That's a powerful revelation, no?
I'm deeply grateful that as a society, both in college athletics and at large, we are much better at understanding and appreciating the importance of mental health. Only the most crusty, old-school coach, and certainly not in public, would disparage or belittle an athlete or staffer who sought mental health services, who acknowledged that they weren't okay, that they were struggling. This was not always the case. I believe it is progress, and that it can save lives.
I know mental health support is important to the NCAA and school-based leaders in college sports. I know because it comes up in most conversations I have with practitioners, and I know because it's a significant part of the Transformation Committee's suggestions. Leaders of this enterprise believe that it is important for athletes to have access to support services for their mental health.
I may be wrong about this, but I worry that there may be a temptation to look at mental health support in a headcount, transactional fashion. We're losing recruits? Well, time to remodel X, or hire recruiting specialist Y. If we need to improve athlete strength outcomes, well, we need to buy more squat racks, hire more nutritionists, bring in new trainers, etc. There's a deficiency, you check the box, hire the consultant, buy the equipment, and solve the deficiency. A lot of the job works that way.
But becoming mentally resilient and strong isn't always exactly the same way one strengthens the core or glutes. It's wonderful and useful and important that we are moving in a societal and industry direction that makes it safe to say, "I am not okay."
But I worry a lot about what happens next. How do you help somebody become okay? How do you help them in the face of fear, anxiety, or despair? Surely it's more than just 'throw some therapist at it', right?
The answer is undoubtedly beyond the scope of a single newsletter, and it's one I hope to continue to look for as long as I'm in this business.
But I wonder if Orlovsky helped demonstrate one way to do it.
When I saw this clip, I saw a commentator who understood that dramatic circumstances require deviation from How We Always Do It. I saw a man who, in the face of grief, pain, and confusion, tried to draw strength from another identity that was important to him, in this case, his faith. I saw a man who had empathy for others, who, in my view, tried to use his position to give strength and support to another, not just himself.
That feels like a good example. Even as a guy who believes in the power of prayer, I am certainly not advocating turning every highlight show into a Sunday School service.
I'm advocating for all of us to develop identities independent of our job title, or status as an athlete, and to help cultivate those among people we lead or coach. I am advocating for us to seek to be more empathetic, to be unafraid to celebrate with those who celebrate, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. And I'm advocating for all of us to continue to be unafraid to admit when we are, in fact, afraid.
I am so happy to hear that Damar Hamlin has improved, that he can breathe on his own, that he was able to hear how many people loved him and wanted to uplift him.
There will be others in locker rooms, staff rooms and newsrooms that will need that treatment as well. I hope that we will all continue to be better at answering that call.
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