Man to Man: Thinking Biblically Through ESPN’s NBA Mental Health Series

Delayed Sensation

When you first step into an ant pile you don’t really notice it. It’s not until after the first stinging sensation that you realize a million little mouths are grabbing onto your skin. The same delay seems to be true of mental health in athletics. Recently, it has been revealed that we have thought athletes to be as immune to mental issues as they were to workouts. Human yes, but with a greater tolerance than most untrained mortals. That charade is finally being exposed. Recently, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullen composed 5 part series on mental health. For the next few posts, I’ll be interacting with ESPN’s work within the scope of each article, while seeking to give a biblical perspective on the topics raised. I am thankful that the world at large has decided to put a full court press on the mental health of athletes, while also pleading that God and the Bible not be left on the bench.

Don’t Tell Nobody

In the 90’s sitcom, The Wayans Bros. a recurring bit was whenever the brothers and Pop, their father, had a secret or something they didn’t want to slip they’d all simultaneously bring both their index fingers over their mouth and nose and whisper yell, “Shhhh!!! Don’t tell nobody!” The same sentiment that brought crowd laughter seems to be at play in athletes and the audiences surrounding them. One of the realities brought to light in the first of the ESPN Mental Health Series is the stigma attached to having any mental issues. As if stuck on repeat, player after player, coach after coach spoke on the fear involved with opening up about what they are facing. There are as many reasons as there are NBA critics for lacking motivation to reach out for help, but for Christians contemplating going it alone should be a huge warning flag. Human beings were created for community, to better mirror God who, within the Trinity, exists in eternal relationship (Gen 1:26). Genesis 2:18-20, although a quintessential text in understanding marriage, provides a fundamental observation that even before sin entered the world, it was not good that man be alone. To be alone was not good then, nor is it good now. Proverbs 18:1 reveals the clear and present danger of fighting through life alone:

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.

​Where there is no community there is no one to come alongside, no one to help. Seeking our own desires in moments of pain and confusion ultimately leads to our destruction, which is why God has given us the church. In dark moments, our thinking and desires cannot be trusted, but when surrounded by believers there is opportunity for them to bring light into our dark thoughts. The New Testament is replete with “one anothers” that cannot be lived out alone. Included in those one anothers is bearing burdens (Gal 6:2), rejoicing, weeping (Rom. 12:15), instructing (Rom. 15:14), and being patient (Eph. 4:2). All of these are needed and necessary as people deal with the issues of life. It’s no surprise then when athletes report some relief after simply opening up to others about their inner turmoil.

Who Me?

General Manager of the Boston Celtics, and former NBA player, Danny Ainge, asserted that the biggest hurdle is “convincing players they need help[1]”. With the perception of being weak, soft, crazy, unsuccessful, or a liar all being associated with mental health, a more fitting word appears: shame. There is too much shame involved with admitting problems and asking for help. The lie athletes believe is that they are somehow less than if they acknowledge the need for help. Thankfully, God is under no such delusion. Not only that, He is informs us that we are not lone sufferers. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is a verse that all believers should have tattooed on their hearts:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

In this verse God has given us: two reminders, an assurance, and a promise. The first reminder is that we are not weird or abnormal for any issue that we face. Whatever it is, is common to man, we are not the first nor the last to confront these problems. Regardless of the “common to mankind” we trial find ourselves in, the Lord reminds us of his faithfulness. Our confidence does not rest on ourselves, but on the Rock (Deut 32:4). Furthermore, God is like a strength coach that knows us better than we know ourselves (Ps. 139), and assures us that whatever we are going through is not beyond our capabilities. Lastly, God promises that whatever dark hole we find ourselves in; He has provided an escape route for us to find our way out of the sprawling gloom. In order to find our way out however, we need to know where to look.

Just a Bit Outside

Dr. William Parham, the NBA’s first director of mental health and wellness, uses the familiar analogy of a smoke detector to describe dealing with internal issues. The alarm going off is to alert us of danger, the answer isn't to remove the batteries but to find the fire. Biblical counselors can agree with Parham's assessment that these are human issues not sports issues, but we cannot stop there. Secular solutions dig deep enough to investigate childhood trauma, meditation and relaxation techniques, and change of thinking patterns, but ignore the core of the heart. If we neglect the heart as our center of thinking and desires (Matt. 15:19), then how can there be any true correction? Worldly wisdom falls short without divine revelation, leading us to trust our own philosophies, traditions, and feelings (Col. 2:8), which is why we need the Divine Physician who is not deceived as we are (Jr. 17:9-10). Dr. Parham is correct. These are not basketball issues, but even deeper than human issues, they are heart issues. Un-biblical reasoning purports relief, but putting out a fire in our hearts while ignoring the arsonist lurking within is a respite at best. True hope and eternal relief are only found in the cross of Christ, which empowers us to live and compete according to the Word of God. I am thrilled at the burgeoning awareness of mental health, and praying that believers can begin to help all athletes guard their heart:

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

Proverbs 4:23.


Soul Training:

Where do you first turn for help dealing with the issues of life?

Read 2 Peter 1:3-4

What have we been given?

Who has given it to us?

What does it help us to escape?

Which of the three areas mentioned (community, shame, heart issues) do you neglect the most? What is one way you can biblically practice making it part of your understanding? (Scripture memory, accountability partners, talking with a pastor or spiritual leader, daily prayers asking God for help remembering the cross takes away shame, etc.)