Ain’t it the truth? And because that’s the case, if you’re down — about the pandemic, about the election, about societal inequalities, about widespread unrest, about any or all of it — let’s talk. Ted will.
“We have to talk about how we’re doing,” Leonsis said. “There are issues we sweep under the table, and we’ll look back at this and say, ‘Why did we do that?’”
Leonsis knows that right around Thanksgiving and again just after Christmas and once more just past Valentine’s Day, he will get an email — or two or three or more — marking the anniversary of a friend’s suicide. These were successful people. They seemed happy. They struggled with the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008-09 or a professional setback. But in each of the three cases, the friend put up false fronts, smiling through sadness. Now they’re all gone.
So with the coronavirus pandemic raging into the winter — adding more stresses to more people than even the bottomed-out economy of a dozen years ago — Leonsis thinks it’s important to acknowledge what he considers the hidden pandemic: mental health issues. In late September, he tweeted about them. Since, he has done a great deal of thinking about them.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when, between the economy and social justice and the presidential election, that everyone has been just waiting for the next shoe to drop in life, in business,” Leonsis said in a nearly 40-minute phone conversation last week, before the election. “So you just know that something worse than happened post-2008-09 is going to happen. There’s a dread about everything.
“We’re creating a world and a society where we are activating all of the issues on mental health, but we won’t talk about it. We don’t promote it. We don’t say it is okay — especially now — to be dealing with anxiety or depression. If you’re having on-the-edge kinds of feelings, it’s the right thing to do to communicate, come to your community, tell your family, tell your friends. We are going to end up with a big, big issue if we don’t talk about it.”
So Leonsis is talking about it. We know that more than 1.2 million people have died worldwide of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. It’s an enormous number, one that would have seemed incomprehensible at this point 10 months ago.
Yet take a guess as to how many people take their own lives each year. According to the World Health Organization, it’s around 800,000 — or one every 40 seconds. Plus, the WHO says, “There are indications that for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.” And that’s without a pandemic further coloring people’s moods or driving them to addictions.
Leonsis’s experiences are poignant personally and pertinent in the moment. In each case, he said, the call with the news of his friend’s suicide floored him. But he noticed, too, common themes. Not only were these friends unwilling to talk about their problems before they took drastic action, but the way they died wasn’t discussed in the aftermath. Their families and friends couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it. That’s both completely understandable and absolutely damaging.
“So we’re on rinse-and-repeat mode,” Leonsis said. “And now the pandemic hits, and we have every single day a hammering on our collective psyche of anxiety, depression. Whatever’s going to happen to our collective and individual mental health could be, in terms of numbers, as bad or worse than the actual pandemic. But we won’t really face it.”
What does this have to do with sports? Leonsis, as we all should, worries about his family and friends. But, as we all should, he worries, too, about the players who perform for us — the players who work for his three professional teams.
For generations, athletes have been trained not to show vulnerability. That’s both physically, by playing through pain, and mentally, maintaining focus despite external distractions.
But in 2020, suppressing those emotions feels neither healthy nor realistic. And yet opening up remains a struggle. Back in the summer, when Major League Baseball was navigating a shortened season in which games were played in front of empty ballparks and players endured the stresses of regular virus testing coupled with travel, I wrote about the mental strains of trying to perform under such circumstances. A piece that I thought would engender sympathy and understanding instead elicited, from some corners, scorn. As in: “They’re paid millions of dollars to play a game. Get over it.”
Really? Leonsis, who prides himself on being relentlessly positive, notices the same thing.
“Every time, when an athlete says they suffer from depression and they’re ridiculed, I shudder,” he said. So with his teams in these times, he wants to be straightforward about it.
“It’s really important for athletes, for businesses, to more and more say, ‘We want to treat not just the whole body but the whole person,’” Leonsis said. “And by the way, that ends up being good business, too. It’s not the opposite. If you’ve got individuals that are firing on all cylinders, they’ll be your best employees. They’ll be your best performers on the court or on the ice. …
“I try to communicate that with honesty. If you trust us, you trust me enough, to say, ‘Yes, I’m having an issue,’ my estimation of you increases. Just as they get measured in vertical jump or body fat, they should be measured in how they’re doing. And if they have a mental health issue, we should be there to help. There are tools that can help.”
We could all use those tools these days. The country is clearly divided. The virus is still here. The holidays are approaching. There’s no Caps or Wizards games where we could gather with buddies and let off some steam. Ted’s message could apply to his players. But it really should apply to us all. If you’re struggling, say so. It’s okay.
“I don’t want to lose any more friends,” Leonsis said.