This is the second post in a series of biblical responses to ESPN'S articles on mental health. This post interacts with the article When making the NBA isn't a cure-all: Mental health and black athletes.
In West Philadelphia born or raised, every little boy wants somebody's praise. When they’re chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool, the most attention that they get is when they ball for a school.
Millions grew up on the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Not just as a form of entertainment, but for young minorities it’s also where they met Uncle Phil, their surrogate father. The Undefeated, has a brilliant Father’s Day piece on Uncle Phil, voted the best TV dad of all time by GQ, and his impact in black culture. The article displays wide-ranging reasons for Uncle Phil’s popularity, while inadvertently highlighting a central tenant in the Bible.
God designed the family as an essential building block in human development. The home is a safe haven where we learn our value, what to value, and how to interpret life. This is why God commands fathers in Deuteronomy 6:5-9 and Ephesians 6:4, to teach children about the Lord and his ways in every moment of life. We are always learning something: the question is whether it’s God’s way or the worlds way. Christ told us to carry our crosses on (Lk. 9:23), not the weight of the world. The home, not the court, is where youth are to be equipped and nurtured to operate according to a biblical worldview.
When parental roles are not filled it’s no wonder black athletes, or anyone for that matter, have warped views of reality, self-worth, and how to correct it. Too often athletes turn to the thing they can control, the area that gives them praise, and to their detriment their identity. They typecast themselves into all too familiar role. In doing so, athletes forsake the water fountain for a cracked Sprite bottle (Jer. 2:12-13). Their thirst and need will not, be quenched without Living Water, found in Christ alone. The home is where people are first led to the fountain to drink.
Where’d You Learn That
Without biblical discipleship, athletes develop worldviews, philosophies, and survival instincts. Proverbs informs us of the long-term impact stemming from childhood education (Prov. 22:6). Good or bad, we tend to live according to what we were raised to believe. Godly counselors consider this and begin with investigating the person and circumstances leading to this point. According to ESPN’s article, black athletes have had to create false personas of invincibility, cultivate distrust of others, and hide weakness.
With inequality, racism, discrimination, and poverty, it make sense that when the NBA golden ticket doesn't pay off “mental issues” surface. The lack of stability, constant fear, questions of worth, and living in a façade all culminate in hopelessness. The model of coping doesn’t work, and the basketball god proves capricious and powerless. The reuniting of the Morris brothers, interviewed in the article, caused symptoms of anxiety and depression to subside. This mirrors the Bible's emphasis on the the heart and home as answers. So what does our Heavenly Father have to offer the athletes of society?
Making Sense of Their Story
Players need to be oriented to the true, biblical story. They grow up ignorant of God’s justice, sovereignty, love, and the affects of living in a fallen world. This leaves them trying to make sense of their lives within a fallen drama. Biblical Christianity offers all believers a place in a bigger story.
They can know they are not languishing alone in a universe of nothingness. The depression and hopelessness can come from being misunderstood, unheard, and unsure of what comes next. When you alone are in charge of your life, anxiety is not only natural but right. In our hands, the wrong decision could end our dreams or even our lives. That’s a lot of pressure for finite creatures to carry. Compound that with an upbringing of distrust, abuse, systematic oppression, and having to navigate this all on your own, and depression begins to make a lot more sense.
But God authors a completely different adventure. God is the Heavenly Father who offers us a narrative that neither trivializes nor victimizes his children. Looking to the end of history in Revelation reveals a hope higher than any arc on a rainbow jump shot. Let’s do a quick breakdown of Revelation 6:9-11:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
These verses place us in the Apostle John’s vision of the coming end of all creation. In this moment the Lamb of God has opened the fifth seal, helping to encourage players they are not alone. Others have asked the same questions in similar situations. Throughout the Bible, God’s people are repeatedly enslaved, marginalized, and mocked, but their faith in God stabilized and carried them. We can tell players that the past was recorded in the Bible to give them endurance and hope (Rom. 15:4). They can be part of a family and an ongoing story better than any fantasy ever written. Most importantly, they have a Heavenly Father who loved them enough to provide His only Son, Jesus Christ, to take the Father’s wrath. This slain Lamb opens the seals, clothes them in the righteousness of His white robes, and soothes them with the truth that all of this suffering will end. It is not ongoing or unchecked. We have a Father who desires to be connected to his children.
We can graft athletes into this story, which allows their sport to be part of the plot development instead of the focal point. My prayer is that the power of the gospel and biblical counsel will soon have athletes saying to their own children, “Sit down and let me tell you a story. Now this is a story all about how, my life got flipped turned upside down, and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became a prince, a son, and an heir.”