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Boston Athletes And Coaches Reflect On The Mental-Health Perils — And Promise — Of Pro Sports

Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown (Michael Dwyer/AP)

In early 2018, two NBA All-Stars — DeMar DeRozan, then of the Toronto Raptors, and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers — opened up about their experiences with depression and anxiety, with other players coming forward in the months since.

Those comments dealt a blow to the powerful conception of top-tier athletes as stoic competitors. And almost two years later in sports-obsessed Boston, it prompted a thoughtful talk about whether professional sports might, against the odds, have a role to play in teaching a largely male audience to ask for and offer help.

On Monday morning, members of the Celtics took part in a panel to preview “Headstrong,” a documentary being produced by NBC Sports; it’s set to premiere nationwide on the network's stations this Friday.

In a panel discussion moderated by NBC Sports Boston’s Trenni Kusnierek, fourth-year guard Jaylen Brown and others discussed the problem — and what feels like a turning point, at least in their league.

Brown, 22, grew up in and around Atlanta, where what he called "over-masculinity" reigned, sometimes leading to violence. On the basketball court, Brown said, it can seem that “people don’t care how you feel, they care about how you perform” — so conversations about mental health just never happen.

“Frankly, living in Boston, some of those conversations need to be had [here], too,” Brown said.

Brown’s best friend and high school teammate died by suicide last spring; the following night, he wiped away tears when the loss came up in a postgame press conference. Brown said he’s “proud” to be part of a moment of change in the NBA.

Brown was flanked on the panel by Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who said his first job was in the pharmaceutical industry, marketing drugs to treat depression and bipolar disorder. It brought home a need to foster healthy environments — including by making Celtics facilities an environment “where we can just be us,” he said.

Other panelists remarked on how the change in professional basketball hasn’t extended to other sports — especially football.

Ted Johnson, a former middle linebacker for the New England Patriots who retired in 2004, noted that he couldn’t imagine Patriots head coach Bill Belichick taking a stand, as Stevens did, in support of his players’ mental health.

“Football is still light-years away,” said Johnson, who suffered from depression and addiction after sustaining multiple concussions during his 10-year playing career. In the NFL, he said, contracts aren’t guaranteed and players are seen as replaceable.

“It’s not a sport where you can show weakness, particularly to coaches,” he said.

But despite the pain, Johnson said he’s glad he played pro football, and that he now has a chance “to educate guys … so that they know what the risks are, [and] so they can get help.”

Brown was emphatic that education about the risk of mental illness, and the responsibility to address it, should start young — as early as first grade.

That’s part of the goal of the forthcoming documentary, which follows a group of professional athletes through some of their darkest moments.

Ted Griggs, who leads programming and production NBC Sports’ regional networks, conceded that historically sports have served athletes and audiences — especially men — with certain messages: “we should be tough, if we get hurt, we should rub dirt on it.”

All panelists expressed a hope that these uncertain conversations can advance the change kicked off by athletes like DeRozan and Love. If professional sports played a part in building up an American problem — of hyper-masculinity, or “performance-based esteem” — for much of their history, they now have a chance to start unwinding it.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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