Head Game

Mental Health in Sports Media

by Andrew C. Billings (Author) Scott Parrott (Author)
©2023 Textbook X, 210 Pages


We are witnessing a sea change regarding mental health in sports media, led in part by professional athletes such as Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, Naomi Osaka, and Simone Biles, who are sharing their own experiences with mental illness, bucking stereotypes in which people experiencing mental health issues are condemned to unfulfilling lives. From quarterbacks to pitchers, power forwards to Olympic swimmers, athletes are increasingly using the mass media—including social media—to share their experiences with depression, anxiety, and other disorders.

Head Game: Mental Health in Sports Media uses interviews with key athletes, leading journalists and sportscasters, and organizational and league leaders to show how media has been used—and could be used in the future—to advance greater understanding of mental health. Professional athletes describe their own experiences with mental illness, including the challenges and opportunities they encountered in the locker room, field of play, and mass media. The athletes, who represent a spectrum of professional sports, describe their decisions to disclose as well as their recommendations for current and future generations of athletes.

Head Game highlights the crucial importance of such disclosures in challenging the context of professional sport where athletes are trained to be "tough" from a young age and any mental illness could translate into reduced playing time and even harassment.

"Head Game represents the first book of its kind to tackle one of today’s most pressing public health crises, one that has been forced into the shadows for far too long, through the lens of sport. Billings and Parrott explore the key media moments in this movement, the storytellers who shaped them, the institutional response from leagues and teams, and the first-hand accounts of elite athletes who have struggled to bring mental health awareness to the forefront—all of which has come to shape how we talk about mental health today. This timely, well-researched and expansive volume offers a powerful compilation of perspectives from prominent athletes like Olympians Michael Phelps and Gracie Gold, to the NFL’s Brandon Bostick, to the NHL’s Corey Hirsch. In combating the silence, stigma, stereotypes and prejudice that have often plagued discussions of mental health, Head Game tracks the modern movement for mental health advocacy within the world of sport and beyond. I highly recommend this book to anyone teaching courses in communication, sport and society, as students will undoubtedly find the material engaging and relatable, as well as to any reader interested in mental health portrayals in the media. I suspect everyone who reads Head Game will find a story within it that they can connect to."
—Leigh Moscowitz, Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of South Carolina

"For too long the discourse of ‘mental toughness’ has dominated sports culture, from the way we coach and train athletes to how athletes are covered in the media. Through interviews with elite/professional athletes who have publicly disclosed mental health issues, the sports journalists who cover their stories, and sports organizations’ own efforts to address mental health, Head Game dissects how dangerous this discourse has been, and creates much-needed awareness on an issue that has been stigmatized in our culture. Head Game humanizes athletes, reminding readers that gold medals, championships, million-dollar salaries, corporate endorsements, or super star celebrity do not immunize athletes against mental health struggles. Sadly, what is at stake is a matter of life or death. Head Game is required reading for all athletes, coaches, journalists, sports fans, or anyone who cares about the mental health and well-being of athletes."
—Cheryl Cooky, Professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Purdue University

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Head Game: An Introduction
  • 1 Key Media Moment #1: Michael Phelps
  • 2 Key Media Moment #2: Kevin Love
  • 3 Key Media Moment #3: Naomi Osaka
  • 4 Key Media Moment #4: Simone Biles
  • 5 The Storytellers: Marking a Moment
  • 6 Organizational Synergy: Teamwork in Making Mental Health Work
  • 7 Case Study: Michael Phelps, Olympic Swimmer
  • 8 Case Study: Kearnan Myall, Premiership Rugby Union
  • 9 Case Study: Brandon Bostick, National Football League
  • 10 Case Study: Gracie Gold, Olympic Figure Skater
  • 11 Case Study: Trey Moses, College and Professional Basketball
  • 12 Case Study: Amanda Beard, Olympic Swimmer
  • 13 Case Study: Corey Hirsch, NHL Goaltender
  • 14 Case Study: Katie Uhlaender, Olympic Skeleton
  • 15 Disclosing Mental Illness: Strategies & Considerations
  • Notes on Authors
  • Index

←vi | vii→


It’s an age-old question in the academic world: should something be written solo, or in conjunction with another author? For us, the answer appeared quite simply: neither of us could have accomplished it alone. One of us had focused heavily on sports media; the other on health stigma in media. What happens when those cultures and issues collide? By working together, we hope we have revealed some answers.

We initially conceived of this project in 2019. It was pre-pandemic. Pre-Naomi Osaka. Pre-Simone Biles. Even then, our sense was that sports media was experiencing a mental health moment. We were right: the time for such a book was, indeed, prescient. We were also wrong: these subjects were being discussed in far more than a moment. When do enough moments accumulate to the point that the culture is irrevocably altered? We are not sure, but we are hoping that mental health in sports media has now reached such a “critical mass” level of distinction. There’s no going back. Nor should athletes, teams, leagues, and larger sports entities wish to do so.

We must thank Niall Kennedy and his colleagues at Peter Lang Publishing for shepherding this book project. We also wish to thank Lawrence Wenner and Marie Hardin for their guidance and ultimate placement of this volume within the Communication, Sport, and Society series. We’re honored to be a part of ←vii | viii→it. We are also grateful for the athletes, journalists, broadcasters, and industry leaders that were part of this interview-heavy process. You gave us the words; we just had to translate them. Finally, we thank our families, including a pair of extremely understanding wives who understood when the evening must be interrupted so we could conduct yet another Zoom interview.

We’ve been a part of many projects that we feel is important. This one joins the apex of those simply because of the magnitude of the need for mental health understanding in the United States and, indeed, the world. This is a conversation that needs to continue. It’s been our privilege to advance it.

–Andrew C. Billings and Scott Parrott, May 2022

←viii | 1→

Head Game: An Introduction

“A single spark can start an inferno. Or it can flare harmlessly, like a firefly. The difference is oxygen, kindling, and luck.”

–Hawley, 2022, p. 16

“Get your head in the game”

–Hoosiers (1986)

The head game.

In sport, the phrase summons images of extraordinary focus and mental jousting among competitors: a pitcher stepping off the mound and calling for the sign to disrupt a batter; a shooting guard leaving an arched palm hanging to remind her defender she just got schooled; a placekicker tuning out 100,000 screaming fans as the clock reads 0:01, then nodding for the snap.

Despite all the talk about physicality in sport, the weight rooms and work outs, Tommy Johns and twisted ankles, the world of athletic competition is one whose outcome is often decided by the mind. Athletes must be able to block out distraction, focus on the goal at hand, and out strategize the competition. In 1989, during his final Super Bowl-winning drive, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana famously used valuable seconds in the huddle to gesture to the stands and calmly ask his teammates: “Look, isn’t that John Candy?” THAT was the legend of a player known as “Joe Cool.”

A few months later, professional golfer Scott Hoch was faced with a tap-in putt—less than two feet to win the U.S. Open—and missed. His nickname? Scott Choke.

←1 | 2→

The head game is key.

Still, that’s not the reason we chose the title for this book. There is another head game taking place with much less fanfare within the sporting landscape, one whose outcome could mean winning or losing, success or failure, and sometimes, even, life or death. We are not exaggerating. Throughout the narratives in the fifteen chapters that follow, this book shares the stories of professional athletes who experienced mental illness while in the glare of the public spotlight. We named the book Head Game because these athletes—and others—navigated both positive and negative consequences when deciding whether to disclose their illness to teammates, coaches, family, friends, and ultimately the public via mass media. Using the term game does not trivialize the experiences of athletes and others who experience mental illness. Quite the contrary. Games describe periods, episodes, and times in which forces compete against one another toward an undetermined outcome. Such is the experience of mental health in sport, a conglomeration of ups and downs, along with struggles, successes, and questions concerning whom to trust and when, with the undetermined outcome being one’s overall mental health.

Millions of Americans will experience mental illness at some point during their lives, yet societal stigma leads people to avoid pursuing help, telling loved ones, or openly discussing the subject of mental health. It is fair to argue that we are witnessing a sea change, though, led in part by professional athletes who are sharing their own experiences with depression, anxiety, and other conditions, and bucking stereotypes in which people with mental illness are condemned to unfulfilling lives. From quarterbacks to pitchers, power forwards to Olympic swimmers, athletes are increasingly using the mass media—including social media—to share their experiences with mental illness. Each athlete can now be a media producer. They have been given the megaphone and the ability to advance their narrative in a far less filtered manner than ever before.

So they have.

While their true expertise lay on the courts and the fields and the pitches, athletes are powerful persuaders of public opinion. Professional athletes’ disclosures might be inspirational for fans (and even non-fans), nurturing heightened awareness of resources, treatment, and the commonality of mental illness. The importance of such dialogue cannot be understated, especially given the context of professional sport in which athletes are trained to be “tough” from a young age. In this book, professional athletes describe their own experiences with mental illness, including the challenges and opportunities they encountered in the locker room, field of play, and mass media. The athletes, who represent a spectrum of ←2 | 3→professional sports, describe their decisions to disclose and their recommendations for current—and future—generations of athletes.

Sport represents a cauldron for mental and emotional stress. Professional athletes work before thousands—at times millions—of people, their highs and lows exposed for the world to see and watch on replay time and again. They work lifetimes to reach “The Show,” only to balance a fine line between success and failure. They shoulder the pressure of family, friends, alma maters, and hometowns in the quest to make it. They operate within a context in which Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre was expected to play in a game one day after his father’s death. They function in an ecosphere where a player like Boston Celtic Al Horford can be criticized in the media for wanting to be present for the birth of his child, as he was in 2016. He should have induced the labor and chartered a private jet, the critics said, we pay him millions to make these kinds of sacrifices.

And so they become legends via their steadfast dedication. They can become inspirations, larger-than-life personas perceived by jersey-clad 12-year-olds as superhuman, infallible, and indestructible. Their personal lives come under the media microscope with or without permission. They spend months away from family, living in hotel rooms and buses and clubhouses, trying to sidestep injury, fighting for playing time, and living in a culture that stigmatizes depression, anxiety, and other illnesses. Seeking mental help requires a consideration of dueling consequences: On one side, treatment could translate into health and well-being; on the other, disclosing mental illness could mean reduced playing time and being chastised by teammates, coaches, reporters and fans. American society stigmatizes mental illness. So, too, does sport. Think a fan won’t bring up a personal struggle from a decade ago? Think again.

Consider Zack Greinke. In 2006, the major league pitcher took a break from spring training for the Kansas City Royals, generating attention from reporters. Ultimately it came to light that Greinke experienced depression and anxiety, illnesses that were threatening his love for the game. Greinke told reporters that the conditions never bothered him on the mound, adding that medication helped. Still, pundits and fans have dissected Greinke’s mental health throughout his career with the Royals, Dodgers, and Astros. Others even went so far as to use the conditions as verbal weapons. The president of the San Diego Padres called Greinke “Rain Man,” referencing a movie whose title character has autism. Yankees fans taunted Greinke as he warmed up in the 2019 American League ←3 | 4→playoffs, making fun of him for experiencing social anxiety.1 Fans saw a chink in his armor and attacked. All is fair in love and war—and playoffs are war.

Or, consider the case of Kevin Love, All-Star power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Love left the court before the final buzzer twice during the 2017 season, experiencing panic attacks so strong he thought he “might die.” Beyond anxiety, Love also faced ridicule from high-profile teammates who described him as malingering. In March 2018, Love published an essay with The Players’ Tribune in which he publicly shared his experiences with depression and anxiety. “Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another,” he wrote. “It’s part of life.” When he committed an on-court blunder in 2021, lackadaisically in-bounding the ball to have it easily stolen, media narratives were infused with Love’s admission about mental health. Be careful here, even his advocates would note, seemingly treating him as though he might fall apart.

As stories in this book illustrate, an athlete’s decision to disclose their experience with mental illness is sometimes forced by the mass media. Tennis phenom Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner, announced before the 2021 French Open that she would not participate in interviews with international media during the event. Citing mental health issues while writing on Instagram, she wrote that “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes (sic) mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” Athletes, she said, are often asked the same questions again and again, introducing (or reinforcing) doubt within the competitor, and the “whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down.”

While some professional athletes praised the 23-year-old, others criticized her decision, saying media interviews were part of a professional athlete’s commitment. Fearing a mass exodus of players who felt similarly, French Open officials and organizers of the Grand Slam fined Osaka and threatened her with sanctions should she refuse to talk to the media. The Twitter account for Roland-Garros, where the tournament was being held, posted a photograph of other athletes ←4 | 5→completing press interviews with the statement, “They understood the assignment.” The next day, Osaka withdrew from the event.

Indeed, mental health is a part of life touching everyone to varying degrees at varying times. Men and women who are paid millions of dollars and adored for playing the games they generally love are not immune. As the list of professional athletes who are openly discussing mental health grows, this is a concept we believe is increasingly becoming apparent for the general public.


X, 210
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (January)
Mental health sport media stigma Olympics anxiety depression framing HEAD GAME MENTAL HEALTH IN SPORTS Andrew C. Billings Scott Parrott
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. X, 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrew C. Billings (Author) Scott Parrott (Author)

Andrew C. Billings (Ph.D., Indiana University, 1999) is the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama. He has published over 230 journal articles and book chapters along with 23 book projects, the majority of which pertain to issues of media content and effects. Scott Parrott (Ph.D., University of North Carolina, 2013) is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama. His research examines media and mental health.


Title: Head Game