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Column: Introducing a world in which athletes are seen as people first

Thank you, Harry Miller. 

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last month titled “Introducing Ash Barty…as Herself.” The article was in response to the retirement of the 25-year old No. 1-ranked tennis star who, most recently, won the Australian Open.

Barty retired acknowledging that while she loved tennis, she was looking to focus on other areas of her life, having already accomplished the goals she’s set out for herself in professional tennis.

The narrative of leaving the limelight might sound familiar. In the last year alone, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles took steps back from their positions at the top of their sports, citing mental health. Both eventually came back.

It also is a familiar story to the one we’ve seen play out with former Ohio State offensive lineman Harry Miller, who medically retired from football in March, also citing mental health.

Medical retirements are nothing new, but the phenomenon of voluntary retirement we’ve seen in recent years is. In 2019, Andrew Luck cut his NFL career short and left a lot of money on the table (of course, he had a lacerated kidney, among other injuries) when he announced his retirement at the age of 30. Years before, in 2015, Chris Borland, formerly of the Wisconsin Badgers, retired just a couple of seasons into his NFL career citing concussions. Borland is now a mental health advocate.

The theme around mental health is not lost, nor is the willingness of even the best players at their game from voicing the need to take a step back in favor of other pursuits. Even this past NCAA Tournament, Powerade’s ad placements feature Biles talking about her decision to take a break for herself.

While these athletes come from different sports and different situations (Olympics and other international competitions, professional leagues, college sports), they all are so young. In fact, Luck was the oldest among the group when he made the decision to end his playing career. What’s strange about this growing group of athletes voluntarily leaving the top of their sports is that, at a young age, they are self-selecting — something that irks a lot of folks the wrong way,

Biles and Osaka bore the brunt of massive criticism from a lot of folks who seem to label themselves as fans, but their situations garnered support from numerous stars in the field. Nastia Liukin, the former gymnastics great, vocalized her support for Biles during NBC’s coverage of the Olympics last summer. Even before the vault attempt that would prove Biles’ undoing, Liukin cited the pressure the young star was under.

Closer to home, Miller’s revelation has been well received, with the former lineman even getting a seat on the Today Show last week to speak about his heartbreaking experience.

While we can applaud the bravery of these athletes in destigmatizing mental health and being open about their experiences, we must also recognize the broader implications these actions will have especially in the sphere of college sports.

Just as tragedies through much of the Industrial Revolution led to labor reforms, revelations of mental health will lead to changes in how college programs conduct themselves. Coaches like Bryan Kelly, the yellers of the college football ranks, might just become passe. What good are threats when the best players have the option to go somewhere where their mental health and personal beings are respected and responded to?

When mental health is strong and players feel safe, they can feel more confident. It enables growth. These are programs players will choose to play for, especially when these programs prove to be winning ones. Rule changes in the NCAA, namely the transfer portal, help to support this power in the hands of players.

Related, discussions of mental toughness will, I hope, go away in favor of discussions of resiliency. The benefits of staying in the game and playing hurt are dwarfed by those of playing at your best. We’ve thankfully seen this shift come with concussions, with mandatory protocols called in from off the field for players who need to be looked at after big hits.

At this point, many athletes are literally willing to give up millions of dollars to protect their mental health, physical health, and whatever else they hold dear. Barty, most recently, recognized that to stay at the top of the tennis world meant she had to give up other parts of her life that were important to her.

Andrew Luck is perhaps the most poignant example. He gave up potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. He had experienced his fair share of injuries during his career, but he’d healed from the worst of them. “I’ve been stuck in this process,” he said in 2019. “I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. It’s taken the joy out of this game.”

Players are now recognizing that if they are no longer healthy enough to compete at this level, they can step aside. Previously, this status may have only been granted to athletes who were physically unable to play. Now athletes can self-select for their long-term physical health and their mental health.

However, that journey might not be for everyone, and that’s okay, too. Alex Smith fought back from a severe knee injury, just as Naomi Osaka came back after her break.

In many ways, we’re finally getting away from this mentality that “wasting a gift” of athletic prowess is a crime. Athletes for whom the sport detracts from their lives don’t “owe” anything to fans, nor do they have to spend hours practicing a craft for which they may no longer have a driving passion. At its extreme, they don’t need to play until they’re broken on the field a la Brett Favre in 2010.

Moreover, athletes can be seen as whole people, because they are.

It’s a luxury they deserve.