Sports: Entering The New Era of Wellness

By Lauren Stockmon Brown

In the wake of Naomi Osaka’s choice to not participate in post-match news conferences during the French Open, it is becoming clearer how the sports industry is finally reflecting other industries of its caliber, and entering into a new era of wellness.

In late May, Osaka explained how her choice to withdraw from the 2021 French Open stemmed from the need to protect her own mental health. Osaka remained vulnerable with the public and stated how the press’ tendency to ask invasive, and often negative, questions about her performance impacted her overall well-being as a professional athlete and as an individual.

Mainstream media met Osaka’s decision to “quit” the tournament with heartfelt cries of disbelief, frustration and for some, understanding. According to a New York Times Op-ed, Osaka’s decision to drop out of the French Open was a “power move” that sent the message to the establishment of one of the world’s most elite sports: “I will not be controlled.” We agree.

Let’s consider the effects of entering an industry that celebrates “mental toughness,” “grit,” and “resilience” through a career of physical labor. Meaning, it is becoming more common to read about how professional and collegiate athletes are having challenges balancing their mental health and the money making career that has demanded they fulfill an unrealistic and unfair ideal. This is the career of Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Allyson Felix; this is the industry where being an icon is in service to a physical labor industry.

For decades, sports have remained both a source of fiscal opportunity and stress for individuals who are interested in continuing their passions or skills at the professional level. In this current decade, we are witnessing and living a shift, into a new era. Athletes collectively seem to be more willing to demand a shift in the system, a shift that will prioritize the needs of an individual over the image of an indomitable, unrealistic ideal. These shifts on trend primarily stem from or lead to a conversation on the importance of maintaining one’s mental health.

In general, topics surrounding “mental health resources” and “financial literacy” are often excluded from daily conversations about success and development. In the athletic arena, many athletes at all levels admit that their preparedness for future or current financial tasks and challenges are limited, and unsurprisingly, extremely stressful.

For this reason, society must improve access to resources, financial, psychological, or otherwise, for various communities. Once we improve access, as an industry, as athletes, and as fans, we move on to the question behind it all: how do the disparities of financial literacy and emotional well-being for the athlete change the landscape of health, finance, and athletics?

Fortunately, the US seems to be entering a new era of wellness with a solution-oriented mind-set rooted in emotional safety and growth. As a country, the United States has the privilege to move into this space, however, the US is replicating history, and leaving some communities and industries behind. Money is a mental health concern and many mental health issues stem from financial disparities. Therefore, as money comes into the conversation, it will always be coupled with mental health realities. Together, we can identify these forms of systemic change in the realm of health and finance while navigating this pressure-filled world with confidence.

6 Ways Sports is Entering a New Era of Wellness

1: Financial Costs/Disparities

In this New Era of Wellness, conversations highlighting extreme financial costs and disparities are coming to the forefront. Suzanne Bird is the current oldest basketball player and one of the most decorated athletes in the Women’s Basketball Association.

Statistically, Bird has played 17 seasons in the WNBA, won 4 WNBA championships and in 2020 she had an average salary of $215,000 as well as a bonus for winning 2020 finals: $11,356. Whereas Lebron James is often considered one of the best players in the NBA. Like Bird, he has also played 17 seasons in the NBA, won 4 NBA championships and in 2020 he had an average salary of $37.44M as well as a bonus for winning 2020 finals: $370,000.

As Americans begin to shine light on the inequality that persists for female athletes, the challenge of sourcing a consistent revenue remains a struggle. At their current wages, professional women basketball players often do not earn enough money to support their families or themselves.

In a conversation about sports, we must learn how to highlight the intersectionality of gender equity and fiscal empowerment.

2: Mental Health Support

As previously stated, a controversial response erupted after Naomi Osaka’s recent interview with Time Magazine, Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s Ok to Not Be Ok.’ Similarly Olympic athletes like Simone Biles and Lindsay Crouse are encouraging the public to not be afraid to “quit.” In fact, “quitting could help you win.”

Lack of mental health/sick days were the “No. 1 suggestion” that Osaka offers to the tennis hierarchy. These days would excuse an athlete from press conferences and protect their privacy without having to go into depth about their absence. Osaka even states, “I believe this would bring sport in line with the rest of society.”

In the US, each state and various cities have laws mandating paid sick leave as proposed legislation is working to increase these enacted benefits as well. The institutional disparities between each profession showcases how even financial success and stability can come at a cost for athletes. In this case, the physical labor that is demanded of professional athletes, coupled with the mental stress of any career, is often overlooked. Why?

In modern times, it is becoming clearer how money is present in an athlete’s daily relationship with other people and institutions. As we continue to highlight the social impact side of finance, we can uncover the unspoken truths about mental health in athletics.

3: Parental Leave / Maternity Leave

As the New Era of Sports continues, individuals are doubling as athletes and advocates, fighting for maternity leave. For years, athletes like the olympian, Allyson Felix, and WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins are advocating for women’s rights and various contract protections pre and post pregnancy. In an article with Sports Illustrated, Felix and Diggins explain how juggling motherhood and a career as a professional athlete leads to a “financial penalty” for many individuals and families. For example, another tennis star, Serena Willems shares her story about raising a child as a professional athlete on a global scale.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE Magazine, Williams encourages the public to consider the financial gaps in supporting women’s rights. She shares the signs of domestic and financial abuse while explaining how “parental leave for both parents is so important.” Williams praises her husband, Alexis Ohanian as someone who spoke out about family leave not only on behalf of women but of men as well.

Last year, Ohanian shared his experience with paternity leave in an essay for The New York Times: “…Paternity Leave Was Crucial After the Birth of My Child, and Every Father Deserves It.” Ohanian explains how thanks to paternity leave (and other fiscal advantageous), he was never forced to choose between his family and a job.

A staggering statistic of “76 percent of fathers are back to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child.” As a result, Major League Baseball is the only major American sports league that guarantees paternity leave to its players. While the NFL, NBA and NHL have no policies in place. Fortunately thought-leaders and change-makers are starting the dialogue that will build the foundation for protecting the financial and familial needs for future generations.

4: Professional Development:

Outside of practice and training, how can athletic institutions increase accessibility to professional development courses or opportunities?

As professional athletes begin to address conversations on financial tracking, the dynamic of revenue and non-revenue sports, mentorship, retirement, language barriers, scholarship, injury, agent selection, off-season planning, and the overall meaning of value (mental, physical, emotional, and fiscal), is there a semblance of separation so that athletes can have an aspect of professional development outside of their job? Conversations surrounding professional development in athletics are typically directed at coaches, administration, and trainers. To what extent can an increase in educational materials in this sphere promote a greater fiscal understanding of mental health support?

We are witnessing a cultural shift in athletics that gives agency to the player. In tandem with these conversations on finance and advocacy, it is crucial to provide ongoing support to individuals interested in building their skill set. The development of ancillary services or tools will strengthen the athletes. Meaning, as athletes continue to advocate and advance their autonomy and purpose, they will gain more access to their own value and monetary ownership. Though, it is becoming increasingly necessary to develop these skills and place the power back in the hands of the athlete.

5: Social Advocacy/Movements

If there is a subtle and overt expectation for athletes to use their platform for “good,” then how is the institution of athletics protecting this form of protest? Meaning, there is scholarly and legal basis for supporting and expanding the laws that protect athletes like Colin Kaepernick (Advocating for the Black Lives Matter Movement), Megan Rapinoe (Fighting for Equal Pay), Layshia Clarendon (Taking on the politics of transgender rights).

Arguably, as the demand for advocacy in athletics increases then it may become more ethical for athletic associations to legislate and recognize forms of self-expression that are not made explicit nor addressed in the First Amendment.

In other words, as it becomes more of an expectation for athletes to advocate for what they believe is important in and outside of the sports arena, then how can society strengthen the precedent that is set to protect professionals who protest in the workplace?

6: Evolving Identities

From a historical perspective, in reference to professionals who double as athletes and advocates like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammed Ali, Arthur Ashe– and in modern time– athletes like Smione Biles, Megan Rapinoe, Naomi Osaka and Colin Kaepernick, why do athletes who have a stance on social justice issues then become a banner child for it in mainstream media? What is the significance of assigning an advocacy cause to one person rather than a collective of people?

Athletes are often encouraged to raise public awareness, increase support, and even influence policy to then bring about change.

The societal pressure to become a change-maker in their job and modern markets may result in harmful expectations that the public often meets with scrutiny rather than acceptance or protection. According to research by Indeed.com, from ages “18-24, the average person changes jobs 5.7 times. Between 25 and 34 years old, they change jobs an average of 2.4 times” and the numbers slowly decline with age. However, professional athletes often grow up playing the same sport and turning their passions into a “life-long” career. And yet, they do not receive the same support when retiring from their sport and choosing a new career in comparison to their counterparts.

How can the institution of athletics consistently encourage and guide an athlete’s evolving professional and personal identity?

This past year has sparked multiple instances of deep reflection and solitude. As a result, athletes at the highest level are repeatedly given the torch to lead the path forward. Simply because the inherent nature of their profession demands an intrinsic level of trial and error.

We look to them for inspiration, comfort or guidance, and this very act alone can lead to criticism and judgement.

It is ironic how a world that prides itself on wins and losses also faces extreme challenges without a clear ending or an ideal team to root for– perhaps athletes like Naomi Osaka are embracing this new era of wellness because the complexities of existing are becoming harder to ignore.