We all, even athletes, deserve a break

Everyone needs a break sometimes.

I spent the past week on vacation myself, visiting my home state of New Jersey — I recommend just skipping it and going to Cabo instead — and while out there I took a trip to Philadelphia to see the team of my youth, the New York Mets, play the Phillies.

It was the first of a three-game series, and it was pretty close for a while. The Mets trailed just 2-1 as I went to the bathroom at Citizens Bank Park before the bottom of the eighth inning and heard Phillies radio man Scott Franzke announce Edwin Diaz’s entrance into the game. I hurried back to my seat, certain I would see the sweetener in one of the worst trades in Mets history make matters worse, as he often has in the time he’s worn orange and blue.

I was just in time to see Bryce Harper come to bat and promptly launch a missile into the trees in centerfield. No doubt, you’ve already seen the image of Diaz pointing upward, thinking Harper had hit an easily catchable fly ball. I’d say that captured the Mets’ recent run pretty well.

As we were leaving, the woman to whom I will soon be related by marriage noted that Philadelphia fans seemed unusually angry and antagonistic despite their team winning. Indeed, the Philly faithful that night spent as much time booing their team as they did cheering.

I thought that observation was particularly relevant to some of the discourse surrounding the sporting world over the past few months. While interlopers have tried to steer the conversation in the direction that befits their particular ideology, one thing is certainly clear — it’s definitely harder to be an athlete in 2021 than it was in 2001, and it has taken a toll on the mental health of athletes everywhere.

Once upon a time, athletes were gods, protected and admired, especially among broadcasters until Howard Cosell came along and began “telling it like it is.” No one should be above criticism, but with a 24/7 news cycle and websites and media outlets competing for eyeballs and clicks, it seems as if we’ve swung too far in the other direction.

The most recent example, of course, is U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from the all-around and some individual competitions at the Olympics a few weeks ago. We spent days debating it. Some called her a hero, some called her a quitter.

Biles explained that she had been suffering from “the twisties,” a mental block that causes gymnasts to lose their ability to maintain body control and properly orient themselves in the air. Biles could have been seriously hurt had she continued. Imagine for a moment an NFL quarterback rolling out of the pocket and losing their depth perception, not knowing where they are in time and space and not being able to properly brace for a hit. Even a momentary lapse could result in a horrific injury.

Just about everyone had an opinion on it, and many of the takes were predictably terrible, but it was, of course, the right decision. I was glad to see her come back and get a bronze medal in the balance beam.

But really, who are any of us to ceaselessly psychoanalyze the personal decision to drop out of a competition, even one as big as the Olympics. At what point do these recycled talking points lose their news value? It’s the Olympics, for crying out loud. The next day should have brought forth a boatload of new headlines; the U.S. certainly racked up plenty of medals over the course of 14 days.

It’s not just the media, either.

Any athlete who dares enter his or her name into a search engine or social media site can instantly be bombarded with thousands of opinions ranging from their performance to their attire. We have platforms that enable people to broadcast publicly and anonymously any unnecessary thought that crosses their mind.

Athletes are now under a constant scrutiny that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky didn’t have to deal with any of this nonsense. The opinions have always existed, of course, but they were easier to ignore.

The solution seems simple, doesn’t it? Of all people, athletes have the ability to pay another person to manage their accounts. But it’s really not that easy. Social media is meant to be an addiction, one that’s particularly hard to break. For all of its flaws and faults, it can provide a real sense of community and connection in an increasingly fractious and fragmented world.

Look, to somewhat paraphrase James Madison, we shouldn’t make angels of men. But sometimes we have just give people a break.

We all deserve one.