Over at ESPN, Jackie MacMullan has written a fabulous article regarding Kevin Love talking publicly about his struggles with anxiety, culminating in an on-court panic attack last November, and the broader phenomenon of NBA players dealing with mental health crises.
Some management types come off OK in the article, talking about the difficulty of trying to convince their players to get help. But MacMullan tosses off a white-hot burning red flag at the top of the piece: “The (NBA Player’s) union also insists that mental health treatment be confidential, but some NBA owners, who in some cases are paying their players hundreds of millions of dollars, want access to the files of their ‘investments.’”
I probably shouldn’t even have to write a column where I spell out that employers, even professional sports teams, shouldn’t have access to their players’ mental health records. It’s the most blatant violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act imaginable. But the relationship between sports teams and HIPPA is already so bent and broken and weird that it really isn’t a tremendous leap of logic for the rich jerks who own these teams to suggest that the domain of the mind is one they should have access too, as well.
Professional athletes, in getting drafted and signing to a team and into their union, functionally give up massive portions of their HIPPA rights. Your union and management have decided that your absolute control over your own health is an acceptable tradeoff in using your body to make heaps of money, and for the pure convenience of trusting your day-to-day health to team doctors. For the most part, it works fine. It’s not as if teams want their players to pound their feet with sledgehammers. That is not a way to create wins or draw eyeballs onto TVs or butts into seats.
But beyond blatant crap like that, the lines between player interests and team interests become… sketchy. The fact is, a team that is paying you for only four or so years at a time is deeply invested in getting you out on the court as fast as possible, getting you to contribute as much as you can without breaking your body irreparably, and team doctors, employed by the teams and not unions or players, act in this interest, sometimes cutting corners or disregarding a player’s long-term health in the interest of getting as much on-court production out of them as humanly possible. This thirst for a constant supply of on-court gristle can absolutely destroy the bodies and careers of players. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to find examples of players who had their careers and even their lives destroyed by coming back from injury too quickly or having their bodies mismanaged by team doctors and trainers in the interest of short-term on-court gain.
Not to mention how the relationship between players and their own bodies becomes the providence of the public. The media entities that cover sports feel a deep and profound—and, speaking as a member of their ranks, kind of unnerving—entitlement to the injury status of players. The reasons for this are fuzzy, sometimes. When you’re reporting on Sports as News, you are reporting on the activities of bodies, and journalistic diligence, the act of telling your readers everything they want to know, necessitates you telling the public about the function of bodies, and anything that could impair that function is, by this definition, something that your readers feel entitled to. Some of those readers—gamblers, fantasy players, other writers, for Christ’s sake—have a financial or reputational stake in having an operating knowledge of players’ bodies, and feel entitled to it in ways that no other profession makes the public feel entitled to your medical status. Sometimes, this reporting is sketchy: aggravating but fundamentally play-throughable injuries can become fodder for gamesmanship when people are raking across your elbow or what have you, and teams try their hardest to keep it quiet, but they do a pretty shitty job of it. There are just too many stakeholders and nosy parkers to keep the status of expensive knees secret.
The fact of the matter is, teams and the public’s feeling of entitlement to the intimate health information of athletes—knowledge that they, as members of the public who have not signed their HIPPA rights away to enter their profession, wouldn’t volunteer to anyone—is already only a half-functional system. There is absolutely no reason to extend this privilege to matters of professional athletes’ mental health.
There is nothing about a player’s on-court effectiveness as it relates to their mental state that you can’t glean from interviewing coaches and teammates and family members and observing them interact in practices and on the court—stuff that teams already have colossal scouting departments do for them. Mental health is an aspect of performance in sports, certainly, but not in a way that makes it unique in relation to literally every other job someone might perform, and this country, for all its other tremendous failures of imagination regarding the health of its citizens, protects that privacy.
And mental health is not even a tenth as straightforward as matters of the knee or the quad. Our minds are messy and sprawling and fundamentally non-understandable. They form complexes and problems and snags that can be embarrassing and weird in ways that many people might find weird and that one would rather deal with privately. If teams actually want players to work on their mental health, if they want them to seek help when they’re troubled and sad, to get medication if they need it, they absolutely cannot subject them to the sort of pure-performance-and-production-based medicine and public scrutiny that comes along with NBA teams knowing about what is happening in their bodies. This would clearly reinforce the stigmas attached to being public about mental illness—making the embarrassments of the mind something that need to be hid once more—doing a profound disservice to Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, and all the other athletes who are doing what they can to destigmatize discussing mental health issues in the public sphere.
I wrote about this on Twitter the other day, and received a reply from this rando that illuminates something essentially truthful about these unnamed owners’ belief that they deserve to know the mental health status of all their players. They know—or they must know, unless they’re complete morons—that the union and the players aren’t gonna go for this. It’s a hideous invasion of privacy. They have employees in their other businesses, and they know this is a massive overreach of managerial prerogative.
But it’s an overreach that could serve them—not in actually getting access to the mental health records of their employees, because that’s not going to happen, but as a negotiating stance that can allow them to take bigger and bigger slices of physical autonomy away from their players. Imagine a world where players’ use of outside opinions was restricted, where a team doctor’s judgment of the legitimacy of their injury could cost them money, where their bodies become even less their own than they already are. In pro sports, as in all capitalist enterprise, employers are seeking to increase their ownership over their employees at every turn.
If a burgeoning movement to promote mental health management can become a bargaining chip to broaden that privilege, the most unscrupulous and loathsome members of the owners’ fraternity will look to play it every time. The only way to stop it is for the public that consumes their product to let them know they find this gesture completely unacceptable.