Earlier this month, Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott went public with his battle with depression, in the wake of his brother’s suicide and isolation due to coronavirus, encouraging others to open up and seek support or therapy when confronted with mental health issues:
“All throughout this quarantine and this offseason, I started experiencing emotions I’ve never felt before. Anxiety for the main one. And then, honestly, a couple of days before my brother passed, I would say I started experiencing depression. And to the point of, I didn’t want to work out anymore. I didn’t know necessarily what I was going through, to say the least, and hadn’t been sleeping at all…
When you have thoughts that you’ve never had, I think that’s more so than anything a chance to realize it and recognize it, to be vulnerable about it. Talked to my family, talked to the people around me simply as I did at the time. Some of them obviously had dealt with it before, was able to have those conversations and then reach out further just to more people. I think being open about it and not holding those feelings in was one of the better things for me.”
In response, Fox Sports sports commentator and erstwhile avatar of toxicity, Skip Bayless, criticized Prescott for being “weak” and said he didn’t feel any sympathy for him, asserting that since he is the Dallas Cowboys quarterback and a football player, that he must always project “strength” and hide “weakness”:
“He’s the quarterback of America’s team. The sport that he plays is dog-eat-dog. It is no compassion, no quarter given on the football field. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spot.”
Many came to Dak’s defense, praising him for his humanity and leadership. And Bayless was rightly criticized by many fans and in the media and sports media:
Scott Van Pelt puts @RealSkipBayless in his place…. without ever saying his name.
— Funhouse (@BackAftaThis) September 11, 2020
What I can’t get over is that this is the point he was TRYING to make. He didn’t slip up, he wasn’t caught on a hot mic. @RealSkipBayless intentionally planned to use his vast platform to encourage people who are suffering from real and understandable depression to remain silent.
— Hannah Keyser (@HannahRKeyser) September 10, 2020
Skip Bayless is and always has been an empty attention seeker. Because of this, he is easy to dismiss. But – unfortunately – his warped perspective here frames a much larger truth and a much larger problem.
Many of us do feel that way and think that way, and – in order to be open, to speak up, to seek help – we have to overcome those feelings. We feel shame. We are afraid:
What if I say something about my mental health, and a client or a co-worker than thinks I’m weak or unreliable or doesn’t want to work with me?
What if I lose my job?
What will people think and say?
These aren’t imagined fears. They are concerns that are grounded in the reality of our culture and workplaces.
As I typed out a few notes for this very article while watching a local youth softball game on the NFL’s opening Sunday, I overheard another father dressed in his NY Giants game day jersey “joking” with his Cowboys fan friend about why he wasn’t wearing his Cowboys jersey:
“Oh right. I forgot. Your starting quarterback is out there having nervous breakdowns every five minutes.”
The most incisive comments about the Prescott/Bayless blow-up, the one that has stuck with me were those of NBA sidelines reporter, Kerith Burke, who tweeted:
“What continues to bother me, hours later, is knowing how many Skips shape sports culture. How many coaches, ADs, front office folks, players and fans hold the same beliefs about weakness or leadership. The scaffolding around sports is broken. The status quo is wrong.”
The scaffolding *is* broken. And it’s not just around the sports industry. It’s across all industries and at home.
We have certainly made progress on destigmatizing mental health issues. And a number of athletes across leagues have led the way. But Bayless’s viewpoint reflects a larger unaddressed problem in America and in American workplaces – a misconception that mental health issues are a “weakness” and a continuing stigma to seeking help and being open mental health issues.
Millions and millions of people silently shoulder massive stress, depression, and anxiety every day. Everyone is carrying something. Ignoring that – and encouraging others to ignore it – serves no one.
What we need to build – institutionally and brick-by-brick at our places of work – is a culture in which we understand that people get sick and that supports them when they do, a culture that looks at our mental health on equal footing and with no more stigma than our physical health. When we are successful in building that, we will be stronger, better, more authentic, more human, and more productive.
Props to Dak Prescott for his bravery, his humanity, and his leadership in being open and honest. Every man and every human is allowed to have mental health issues and to seek help and support for them when they arise. (Yes, even the QB of “America’s Team,” who – last I checked – is a human being.)
To seek help for yourself and to seek to help others is not a weakness. It is a strength. We need to build our culture and our institutions around that truth.
Photo Credit: Screenshot from Zoom Press Conference