Last weekend, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke as a panelist at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. He was asked by Book of Basketball author Bill Simmons why so many NBA players seem, for lack of a more exact phrase, “unhappy.” Silver’s response was quite unexpected. Instead of a canned answer about how players are actually feeling hunky-dory, and accusations that Simmons was just talking “fake news,” Silver said, “We are living in a time of anxiety. I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”
He then went on to speak about the depth of the sadness, isolation, and even depression many players feel. He also said that players sometimes reach out to him on the road to discuss their feelings. “I’m an anxious person myself,” he said. “That’s why the players like talking to me.”
Silver’s response comes as more players are being open about their mental-health challenges, with All-Star Kevin Love penning a long essay and All-Star DeMar DeRozan opening up to the Toronto Star in the last year about their own issues with anxiety and depression. Yet not everyone was feeling Silver’s support for players and their mental-health travails. “I think that’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard Adam say,” said NBA Hall of Famer and media maven Charles Barkley on ESPN’s morning show Get Up! “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard any commissioner say. Listen…these guys are making $20, $30, $40 million a year. They work 6, 7 months a year. We stay at the best hotels in the world. They ain’t got no problems. That’s total bogus.”
He then took a big shot at one of the most famous—and unhappy-looking—players in the league, Kyrie Irving. He continued, “Let me tell you something else, Kyrie Irving… I’ve never seen a person so miserable. He’s got to be one of the most miserable people I’ve ever seen.”
These comments need to be repudiated. Depression and anxiety among players is not something to scoff at or shame. It’s an objective fact. It’s a real product of their jobs—the isolation, the travel, the separation from family, the inability to connect with a rotating band of teammates. But it’s also a product—as Silver hints at—of our broader society. It extends well beyond the ill effects of social media, however. After all, we live in a country that ever-greater percentages of people feel is headed downhill, or to paraphrase the movie Deep Cover, “Always the same. Getting worse.”
And it’s not just NBA players. Damn near simultaneously with Barkley’s rant, a new government study hit the news that shows more Americans are dying from drug and alcohol abuse and suicides than at any point in roughly the last two decades.
To get perspective on this, I reached out to Royce White. A 2012 first-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets, White was bounced from the team because he was public and unashamed about his own mental-health challenges. He sent me the following statement and asked that I publish it in its entirety:
“[Adam Silver’s] diagnosis is accurate. Though it’s clearly not just the players. Coaches, refs, GMs, Owners have also spoken about their mental health issues. The blame certainly isn’t to be placed on social media wholly. In fact, it’s flat out dishonest for Adam to be the one saying this at all. Adam and I had this discussion through letter correspondence years ago. In 2012, anxiety and unhappiness was considered the anomaly issue—the ‘Royce’ issue—that just had to be weeded out and proceeded past. Now it’s ‘generational.’ It’s another way to stigmatize the issue and shift the accountability away from his own anxiety about how to deal with the problem. Social media isn’t to blame. If he really believes that, why has the NBA boosted its social media initiatives tenfold? Social media itself and these times in general are a product of the angst of many generations. I was the advent of a new mindset and approach. They scoffed at it, Adam included. As a result of their ego, they’re just now accepting the reality of something we could’ve been working since the first day I brought it up in front of the world. They’re underwater in this domain and still haven’t even realized they’re wet.”
The NBA has come a long way on issues of mental health, but it still has a ways to go. Comments like Barkley’s only increase the stigma. Silver should not only confront Barkley’s diatribe. He should address the league’s past dealing, or not dealing, with mental health among its players. As for social media, as Royce White points out, if that is so pernicious, then why does the league spend so much time and money to make its presence on social media hegemonic? It’s worth asking Silver that question, and it would be great to hear an answer.