One stands 6-foot-5, works in Philly, and nobody makes light of his mental health issues that sometimes keep him off the football field.
The other is 4-foot-8, is half a world away, and legions of bullies picked on her as her mental health struggles kept her off the bars and the floor and the vault at the Olympics.
Brandon Brooks in 2016 became a giant in the conversation concerning the mental health of high-profile athletes. He manages an anxiety disorder that has cost him five games in his eight NFL seasons, which reached its apex in 2019, when he was the NFL’s best offensive lineman.
Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast who ever lived, last month became a polarizing figure when, after one vault, in the team competition, she withdrew from all further events until the balance beam Tuesday, in which she won the bronze medal. Her withdrawal was criticized by many who saw it as a sign of weakness, betrayal and cowardice. Yes, the most high-profile of these people were right-wing pundits and politicians, but, as Biles missed event after event, the false ideal of mental toughness and the stigma of psychological imperfection did not limit itself to any political bent or gender.
These opinions ignored the strength of character, the loyalty to team and to country, and the unfathomable courage required to step out of a spotlight that, at the Tokyo Olympics, shined more on her than anyone.
Brooks was proud of Biles both of her medal and of her stance.
“I’m always going to support somebody who takes some bold steps to get themselves right,” Brooks said.
And he has no time for no-talent haters who relish the chance to run down an idol.
“When you’re the top 1 percent of the 1 percent at something, there is no more pressure you (can) put on yourself than yourself. It’s no different with me. When you do that, it helps you excel past what other people are able to do,” Brooks said. “What’s been interesting to me about it is (hearing) people with opinions that, No. 1, really don’t matter, and two ... they’re not in the top 80 percent.”
Athletes these days eat better, train better, and protect their precious brains better with concussion protocols. Now, we are witnessing an overdue revolution, seeing those same athletes practice psychological self-care and mental well-being.
Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner and the No. 2 women’s tennis player in the world, withdrew from both the French Open and Wimbledon this year, citing mental health struggles. “I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018,” she said in Paris.
Kevin Love, an NBA champion and a five-time All-Star, indicated in The Players’ Tribune in September that he’d contemplated suicide : “If it hadn’t been for a couple of my closest friends, I don’t know if I would be here today.”
Retired American swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, admitted in 2018 that he, too, contemplated suicide. Phelps has made championing the mental health of athletes his life’s most precious work.
And, of course, there is Brooks, who competes in the least sympathetic of arenas, and the shame he no longer feels.
Brandon Brooks, a perfectionist fixated on validating his five-year, $40 million contract at the time, missed two games in three weeks in 2016, crippled by debilitating pregame vomiting that depleted his system. These episodes led to Brooks revealing his condition late that season — which, in turn, revealed to Brooks his true supporters.
”Let’s be real: When I was going through the anxiety stuff, not everybody had my back,” Brooks said in 2017 a few weeks before he helped the Eagles win Super Bowl LII.
Some players and coaches sneered when Brooks spent his off days with a therapist, began taking medication, and began to believe there was more to life, and more to him, than just football.
Biles, who has won 23 gold medals between the Olympics and the World Championships, understands. Not only did she have to endure criticism for withdrawing, but also one of her aunts died while she was in Tokyo. The cruelty on social media was dismaying.
“At the end of the day, you have to be a little bit more mindful of what you say online, because you have no idea of what these athletes are going through as well as (in) their sports,” Biles told reporters Tuesday.
Her regimen to return was as taxing as any workout routine.
“Every day I had to be medically evaluated by the doctors,” she said, “and then I had two sessions with a sports psychologist, which kind of helped keep me more level-headed.”
All in full view of nearly 8 billion people.
We’re a little bit closer to understanding how crippling these pressures can be. And, you hope, we’re a little more respectful of decisions like Biles’.
“I would say I’m glad that at least it’s a conversation now. People are taking care of themselves, as far as, if they’re not feeling right, it’s OK to step back,” Brooks said. “Because, mentally, when you’re not right, it can become physical. You can go out there and hurt yourself.”
Simone Biles protected herself from injury. Simone Biles, positive that her performance would sabotage her team’s chances, gave her team and her teammates the best opportunity to succeed, which, largely, it did. The U.S. won the silver medal in the team competition. Suni Lee won the gold medal in the all-around and Jade Carey won the gold medal in the floor exercise, events Biles was favored to win. MyKayla Skinner, Biles’ replacement in the vault, won silver.
A new age
This might, on its face, be difficult to understand, and even more difficult to accept. Biles, a sexual assault survivor, had trained nearly two decades for singular moments like this, and, as the apex of one of the greatest Olympic careers in history arrived, she backed down. How?
People of a certain age have been programmed to ignore all types of pain and doubt when the biggest moments arrive. People of a certain age can deal with failure easier than they can deal with retreat.
People of a certain age — people like me — need to evolve.
Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps and Kevin Love and Brandon Brooks and, of course, Simone Biles — they are establishing new precedents. These precedents give solid form to the ideals so many of us teach our children: That winning isn’t the only thing; that your identity might include athletics, but it isn’t limited to only athletics; that happiness and fulfillment matter more than medals and money.
“Definitely bringing a light to the conversation of mental health, it’s something that people go through a lot that is kind of pushed under the rug,” she said. “I feel like we’re not just entertainment, we’re humans.”
Strong. Loyal. Brave. And, at 24 years of age, a woman possessed of giant wisdom.
“You know, there’s more to life than just gymnastics,” Biles said before she withdrew.
She was right. So was Brooks.
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.