In 1997, 38 points, 44 minutes and the resolve of a legend came to define the culture of sports. As the final buzzer sounded at the Delta Center, Michael Jordan collapsed, exhausted and gasping for breath. Game 5 of these NBA Finals had forever become “The Flu Game,” the valiant embodiment of Jordan’s “mental toughness.” Intentionally or not, he set the bar for greatness in those grueling 44 minutes, and athletes have since been held up to this higher standard. It has become the lens through which we view an athlete’s propensity to persevere and quantify their intangible “will to win.”
This lens, though, is tinged by Jordan’s victory, so we naturally tend to associate the two: winning and mental toughness. When LeBron James all but vanished in the 2011 NBA Finals, we indicted his mental stability – he lost, so his mind was weak. Just a year later, he became mentally tough because he emerged from the sideline, body ravaged by spastic muscle cramps, to sink what turned out to be the game winning three-pointer in a pivotal Game 4.
Clearly, the arbitrary nature of this designation is absurd, but the true absurdity lies in coupling mental toughness with mental health. Recently, Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin suffered an emotional breakdown in response to alleged bullying led by teammate, Richie Incognito. The media, former players and fans everywhere were quick to stigmatize Martin as unfit for the game of football—too mentally weak to survive in this violent ecosystem of men. But do the two really have anything to do with each other?
If Michael Jordan were to admit that his greatness was a product of his deeply embedded insecurities—that he had to be great because it was the only self-validation he could attain—would our opinion about him change? Would he be any less tough because he suffered from the same kinds of emotional turmoil Jonathan Martin may be suffering from? The two concepts are incongruous. We are guilty of reserving mental toughness for the victors while excluding mental health from the conversation altogether.
Before we further alienate athletes suffering from real, internal battles by stigmatizing them as mentally weak, the culture of sports needs to be enlightened. Only then will the veil of ignorance that shrouds mental health be lifted, making us all “mentally tougher” in the process.
Corey Janson is a senior majoring in psychology and political science.