The Media’s Role in Shaping the Narrative Surrounding Athletes’ Mental Health

Designed by Megan Chen

Digital mass media can use its widespread influence to spearhead a shift in attitude toward acknowledgement and acceptance of the importance of athlete’s mental health.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, I sat at my computer with the TV buzzing in the background. My dad was working in the rocking chair, and my mom skimmed a fashion magazine from the sofa. It was Olympics season—the one thing that gathered my family in the living room where we could all tune in to the fun and games.

The words “Simone Biles,” “showstopper,” and “must-see TV” drew my eyes to the bigger screen, where I calmly—then disbelievingly—watched Biles’s “very uncharacteristic” vault performance. 1 “Wow…” My reaction echoed that of the commenter’s. “Was that serious?” came from my mom who had tossed aside her reading. My dad, the most athletic but the least engaged sports fan out of the three of us, missed the six pivotal seconds in gymnastics history. 

“What happened?” 

Exactly—what happened? Simply put, Biles had made a mistake on the vault, executing 1½ twists instead of the planned 2½ twists and stumbling forward on the landing. 2 Normal, especially in high-pressure and high-technique situations, right? Except it wasn’t simple or normal, not for the most decorated gymnast of the generation, and certainly not for the media, which opened fire on her Olympic ‘fail.’

This isn’t the first time digital media—including online news sources, social media, and other internet-based platforms—has bashed professional athletes for a less-than-satisfactory performance. Titles such as “EPIC athletic fails” are constantly trending on YouTube, and nearly everyone can point to one famous (or is it infamous?) mistake in sports. But, widespread speculation and attention on the mental health reasons behind Biles’s mistake is relatively new in the sports world. This spotlight is paving the way for a broader conversation on the importance of mental health for athletes and for all people in general,

Traditionally, media reports of athletes have focused entirely on physical wellness and ability, fostering an absolute correlation between physical health and athletic performance. The media narrative around sports injuries has been heroic and sympathetic—from reporting Tiger Woods’ historic 2008 U.S. Open win on a broken leg to detailing Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tear in 2013. 3 4 Physical injuries are recognized, analyzed, and normalized. Rehab is considered a commonality and an integral aspect of playing and watching sports. Until very recently, the state of an athlete’s physical wellbeing was almost synonymous with performance excellence and overall wellbeing. 5 Mental health, consisting of our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being,” is an important factor of our overall health, yet its presence is almost nonexistent in the public realm of sports. 6

This year, instances of elite athletes withdrawing from competitions due to mental health reasons have ignited the debate surrounding the definition and importance of mental well-being for athletes. 

In May 2021, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka refused to participate in the French Open press conferences and withdrew from the tournament due to mental health concerns. Her move initiated a wave of media criticism and peer support, broaching the long-ignored conversation about the importance of athletes’ mental health. After declining to face the media which gave her “huge anxiety,” Osaka was fined by the tournament’s organizers who refused to relax the traditional press duties. 7 In a statement withdrawing from the French Open, Osaka confessed to experiencing “long bouts of depression” since the U.S. Open in 2018 and specifically cited media scrutiny for making her feel “vulnerable and anxious.” Osaka’s assertive actions to prioritize her mental health, however, were labeled narcissistic, with some online platforms even calling her withdrawal due to mental health reasons “an excuse.” The wave of outrage following Osaka’s boycott reveals exactly the problem with the media—that its bias, subjectiveness, and ambiguity compounded by its massive influence magnifies every action and word of the victim, damaging one’s self-esteem and mindset.

The wide spectrum of attitudes in response to Osaka’s message brings to light the complexity of the role mental health should play for professional athletes. A joint statement issued by the Grand Slam tournaments called Osaka out for “Code of Conduct infringement,” raising the moral question of whether an athlete is obligated to perform his/her duties when mental wellness is at stake. 8 Other athletes expressed understanding for Osaka but backed the media, revealing a lack of acceptance and emphasis for mental health in sports. 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal said, “I understand her, but without the press…. we will not be the athletes that we are today.” In a vehement attack at Osaka, one article criticized Osaka for launching a reality show, a Barbie, and starring on the cover of the SI swimsuit issue after saying she was too introverted to talk in front of the media. 9

On a more optimistic note, an outpouring of love and unconditional support from several media sites defended Osaka, criticizing the public outrage surrounding her withdrawal that carried no thought of the pressure she faces. 10 Fans also took to internet platforms and social media to express their understanding and praise, opening the conversation on mental health to netizens and the general public. At a time when mental health is gradually being destigmatized, especially in communities of color, Osaka’s announcement showed others that it’s OK to not be OK. 11 Public acknowledgment of mental pressures the media imbues, especially by media sources themselves, have great potential to shift the discussion from “should we care about athletes’ mental health?” to “how can we care for athletes’ mental health?” 

Just weeks after Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, legendary gymnast Simone Biles stumbled on the vault at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and withdrew from several events in a similar move, citing a need to focus on her mental health. “It’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind and body in sync,” Biles explained. 12 “10/10 do not recommend.” Biles pointed out that mental struggles translate into physical struggles, which have a direct impact on athletic performance. The potential danger of serious injury when athletes compete with an unhealthy mindset brings much-needed prioritization of mental health for athletes. While fans and media reporters are disappointed by Biles’s withdrawal, the attitude toward her actions has largely been neutral and accepting, if not positive and supportive. 13

Perhaps after Osaka’s controversy, people were more accepting of Biles’s reason for stepping down from competition. If anything, the emphasis that mental health is health on the media’s part shows the progress society is already making toward prioritizing overall wellbeing. One article concedes “although it’s tempting to want a clear answer on why exactly Biles dropped out, we shouldn’t be surprised by the murkiness surrounding her decision. The truth is always more complicated than it seems. Mentally, physically, and emotionally, Biles had a lot on her plate.” 14 Encouragement and even praise came from teammates and other athletes in the industry. Former Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin said that she will “forever be so proud of [Biles] for setting such a great example.” 15 Moreover, new sponsors like Athleta have backed Biles, describing her as a strong female athlete and a role model for female empowerment. 16

A national, even global conversation on mental health and athletic performance opened by professional athletes has the potential to inspire emerging athletes, sports fans, and netizens alike. Curious about the effects of media, especially social media, on the mental health of student-athletes performing in an increasingly digitized and informed world, I sought an exclusive interview with one of Stanford’s own rising stars. In an interview with incoming Stanford freshman and USA U19 Women’s National Soccer Team member Haley Craig, we discussed media culture, balancing social pressures, and the importance of a strong support system, among other things. 

Craig committed to playing soccer at Stanford during her freshman year in high school, a statement of dedication few others her age could make and stick to. Aside from training to become a professional soccer player, Craig is also a huge advocate for mental health and plans to major in International Relations with a minor in Psychology. 

“Soccer has played a huge role in my life,” says Craig. “My end goal is to play professional soccer and law school is something I’m thinking about. I want to make a difference in the world, maybe with my platform through soccer.”

Even without considering the influence and attention of the media, being a student-athlete means balancing two very busy schedules for Craig, who is already on campus for pre-season training. “Balancing school and soccer is definitely tough, but we have a ton of resources,” Craig admits. “Using my resources and my teammates [helps]. It’s school first. It’s always school first.” 

When asked about any positive, neutral, or negative media publicity she has experienced, Craig’s answer was optimistic and conscious. While she hasn’t received the global attention of millions like celebrity athletes Osaka and Biles have, her experience with and attitude toward digital media provides insight into the potential, and the potential danger, of the massive media influence today.

For Craig, the media attention she received has boosted her confidence and given her motivation to train harder. “I haven’t had a ton of spotlight at Stanford, but back home [in Michigan] there was a lot of positive light. There’d be articles in the local paper about me and my friends doing cool things with our athletics. I’ve had a positive experience thus far, which is great for my mental health. I can’t imagine [how I would feel] if there was negative talk toward me,” Craig says.

However, Craig has witnessed the injustices in the treatment of athletes like Biles and Osaka, whom she believes have every right to thrive outside of their sports. She finds the rumors and speculation unacceptable, believing strongly that athletes are more than their sports. Her attitude towards social media, the popular form of online presence for young people like ourselves, is more skeptical and cautious.

Craig says, “Honestly, I hate social media. I’m not big into it. I use Instagram for networking. I have a Twitter account for sports. I don’t have Tiktok. I don’t want Tiktok. I feel like social media takes away the connection you make with people. It kind of creates a false reality of everyone’s lives.” 

I couldn’t agree more. While there are alternative ways to reap the benefits of social media, the superficiality created often causes overthinking, comparison, and unhealthy mindsets. For overcoming stress and anxiety, Craig relies on her support system she has built over the years, including family, coaches, teammates, and mental health professionals. She has had a very positive ongoing experience with her own therapist and encourages everyone, no matter their state of mental health, to see a therapist. 

As we discussed Biles’s performance and decision to withdraw from her signature events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Craig reflects on past experiences when she wasn’t in the mental headspace, emphasizing the importance of having a supportive coach.  

For Craig, not being in the right mental headspace makes it hard to play a game in front of an audience and perform at one’s peak. Luckily, she’s had really supportive coaches who will not put players in a situation where they’re not mentally ready to play. Her experience reveals the resources and protection athletes can seek to alleviate stresses posed by the outside world. Sometimes, having the people closest to you accept you for taking a step back counters the perceived animosity and expectations of the media or audience. Craig shares one example of the importance of having a support system. After having nose surgery in April, she wore a face shield but wasn’t mentally ready to go back due to fear of getting injured. Her coaches supported her and didn’t make her play, instead letting her sit on the bench because they knew Craig wasn’t going to be her best self on the field.

Finally, I asked Craig what she thinks about the role the media should play in the lives of professional athletes. Her response factored in perspectives from both sides, striking a balance between privacy and publicity. 

“It’s fair to want the full perspective on any situation. You want all sides of the story. But I think that a lot of the time we treat athletes as if they are not human. It’s the same with celebrities—we kind of treat them as if they are a thing, not a human being,” Craig says, “But [they] have a life outside of their sport. I feel like just taking into account that everyone is a human being and knowing that they’re putting themselves first, which you’re allowed to do and be selfish sometimes, especially when it comes to safety.” 

Like Craig, many emerging athletes are prioritizing their mental health and other pursuits (in her case, academics) alongside the sport they play. In the age of digital media when biases, assumptions, and entire lies can be made and brought into popular belief through online networks, it is especially important to raise awareness on the mental well-being of publicized figures. 

While it is clear that the media’s scrutiny and attention negatively affects the mental health of athletes who are put under a skewed spotlight, there remains debate on whether and how change should be enacted. It is evident that digital media, when employed correctly, can be a driver of positive change in destigmatizing mental health for athletes. The wide-reaching influence of media, consumed by sports fans and the general public alike, has potential to spread the prioritization of mental wellbeing to non-athletes as well, fostering a global movement for self-care and wellness.

In a nutshell, mental health is health. Just because mental health isn’t as visible or quantifiable as physical health doesn’t mean it has less of an impact on the optimal performance and abilities of athletes. Athletes, like all human beings, should have their mental health needs prioritized alongside their physical health needs. Digital mass media can use its widespread influence to spearhead a shift in attitude toward acknowledgment and acceptance of the importance of athlete’s mental health.

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