The mental state of the Black Athlete in America Pt. 1: The Wayside

Mental Health.

Two words that are bypassed and unaddressed in the black community. The stigma of mental health as a black man usually carries a negative connotation. The concept of self-care is often misconstrued as being selfish. The risk of backlash leaves Black men in a limbo state, either risking vulnerability confronting their issues or masking themselves to maneuver through society. Black athletes in America experience a parallel of two extremes. In rare cases, the stars align with their God-given talent, and they make it to the league. In other cases, these young men fall short and are left to pick up the pieces of their life. This two-part series will highlight the false stigma of the athletes who reach the crescendo, and those who pursuits fall short; both have their proverbial cross to bare mentally in a country that does not relate to them.



The pipeline funneled from the black community to the NFL and NBA is unprecedented. Black athletes account for more than seventy percent of the employment in both leagues. In the 2015-2016 season, it was reported that black players accounted for 74.4% of the NBA. The year before, in 2014, the NFL conducted a survey stating that 70% of players were black. The NFL and NBA have received the cream of the crop of black athletes for decades. Each year these athletes get more impressive and dare I say more desperate to be a part of these leagues. The despair in the black community contributes to the pipeline of black products the associations produce every season. The 2020 NFL draft was a prime example of trauma-based propaganda. The product being young black athletes, it seemed with every black man selected ESPN, had a traumatic back story. The draft further pushed the narrative to young aspiring athletes, that playing professional football is their only way to prosperity. Often the stories of triumph are elevated while the black boys who fall short are minimized and pushed to the wayside.

One might say the two leagues have benefited from the misfortunes of black America. According to a study by Dr. Claud Anderson, black Americans own only one half of one percent of the wealth. In America, where ownership is the equivalent to power, blacks fall at a grave disadvantage. The issue goes without mentioning the injustices and racial prejudices they have faced for generations. The staggering wealth gap, the gentrification of communities, drugs, and crime planted in predominately black areas. In turn, creating an environment where black children feel the sole way to prosper is becoming a professional athlete. This mentality plays right into the NFL and NBA’s hands. The stigma has become a mental anchor in the minds of black America. The projection that it is all or nothing when it comes to playing sports in their environment. It is one thing to have an athlete that plays for a hobby; it is another to have an athlete play for his perception of freedom.

The harsh reality is that black men in America are verbally and subconsciously groomed to play for a corporation at a young age. The concept may sound ludicrous; however, this is the norm in the black community. Such so that parents lean upon their children, making it as a future employee for these leagues. Sports that should be fun-filled and innocent are considered the difference in prosperity or poverty. From six-year-old little league to eighteen-year-old seniors in high school, these boys are bred to make it out by any means. The pressure accumulated from generations of miseducation and poverty has an immense detriment to the mental health of these young men.

In a 1972 interview with Nikki Giovanni, Muhammad Ali alluded to the plight of the black athlete in America. Nikki asked, “What advice would you like to offer the young guys coming up interested in sports?” Ali replied, “Well, I wouldn’t advise none of them to be athletes because it’s too risky. You know I’m one of the best, and I got a break, Joe Frasier got a break. Still, like if you have an accident or break a leg or don’t have the talent, you should have, you spend your life trying. The next thing you know you’re in a certain age bracket you didn’t make it, they consider life a tragedy, one thing for sure if they go to school learn to read learn to write take up some type of occupation and use their brains and not their fist if they have anything to do with boxing be the manager because usually they get all the money, the fighting itself or being an athlete I wouldn’t advise any young black man to be, now that black people are coming into power. Now that they are becoming independent, we need to start thinking in the way of self, we need electricians, we need mechanics, we need doctors, we need nurses, we need scientists.” The crowd stunned by Ali’s response burst into resounding applause.

Muhammed Ali, the most popular man in sports and the face boxing, went against the status quo telling black athletes not to pursue professional careers in athletics. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam and the Black Muslim movement. Recruited by Malcolm X, Ali was aware of the issues affecting blacks in America. Ali was never known to shy away from publicly addressing black issues, as many know Ali lost four prime years of his career due to refusing to fight in the Vietnam war after being drafted.

Nearly five decades later, the issue is even more prevalent in 2020. It seems like more young black men are wandering today than ever. The message Ali was stressing has lost its impact over generations. With the advancement of hip-hop culture and technology, it has exerted more pressure on these young men. They cannot turn on a television or cell phone without the richest of sports thrust upon them. Young black men raised in poverty or single-parent homes with no male influence sports become their saving grace. Their perception of reality gives them two avenues, either play ball or turn to the streets.

The vast population of black men dominating the NBA and NFL landscape does not suffice those that fall short. The question hardly ever posed what is next for the young men who don’t achieve these heights? Their mental health not only goes unnoticed; it is ignored and unserved. The fact of the matter is mental health in the black community is not a priority; if anything, it is considered a detriment in the culture.

According to SAMHSA 2018 nationwide survey of drug use and health, it was reported that 16% of Black and African American people reported having a mental illness. The number is staggering, considering that blacks and multi-racial people in America make up 16.1 percent of the population. The Mental Health of America site reported that in 2018 one 1 in 5 black people in America live in poverty. However, the poverty line has increased in recent years. On the flip side, women are heads of households in roughly 30% of black homes, compared to their white counterparts of 9%.
The statistics magnify the issue that even if these young men do not grow up in poverty, being raised in a single-parent home is detrimental. Absent fathers result in these men pursuing sports to fill the gap. When they fall short of their athletic ambitions, these men fall into a mental rut. This mind state of confusion and despair turns into a multitude of issues: depression, substance abuse, emotional unattachment, etc. In some cases, these men have children. The detriment of the unaddressed mental state sometimes directly affects the father’s presence and parenting style. Thus, continuing the cycle of fatherless homes that was bestowed on them in their childhood.

As cliché as it sounds, education is vital. The generational knowledge in households must be passed down. Young black men must be taught their gifts span further than the football field or basketball court. These young men are potential writers, artists, poets, business owners, professors, entrepreneurs, etc. The message that Ali was stressing is clear. There is nothing wrong with playing sports. They can play a valuable role and teach many life lessons of overcoming adversity, trusting your fellow man, and learning to thrive in a diverse environment. We all love sports; it is what unites us, but it must not be the only avenue to prosperity and wealth in the black community. We owe it to ourselves to decide our destiny and not let capitalism determine for us.

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