basketball

The combination of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10 and the wrap-up of the NBA bubble got me thinking.

First, it got me feeling grateful to the NBA for returning sports to us this year after they were stripped away by an uncaring, unrelenting, and still unconquered virus. It was truly an incredible feat to pull off.

And second, it got me thinking about how I rely on sports for my mental health and why that’s OK.

I want to emphasize I'm only speaking for me and my experiences. This is a confessional, not an advice column. To those who don’t heavily invest in sports, this may come across as unsettling. Let me clarify: I don’t mean my mental health is completely dependent or predicated on sports, but the relationship is there. I’m now looking at it in the face.

I feel I’m not only speaking for myself but also for the sports-loving community in general. Sports are so deeply interwoven into facets of life than just a game on the TV.

Now, I’m not in any way disregarding professional help. Sports don’t cure any mental illness that I’m aware of, but everyone needs something to look forward to.

There must be optimism for the future, no matter the source. Sports will not fix your illnesses, and delaying dealing with them in real ways can be majorly detrimental. I advise anyone who is struggling to find real help. It is out there, and it works.

But allow me to explain how sports have helped me.

In my experience, those who don’t follow sports in a close way just don’t get it, and it’s often infuriating. “It doesn’t really matter,” they say, or, “It’s just a game.”

Also, those same folks have something they tend to rely on, subscribe to regularly, or emotionally invest in, be it a show, book, video game, whatever. It’s the same deal, y’all. We’re all just trying to get through.

For me, putting on that hat, jersey, or hoodie brings me comfort in a community. There is a collective understanding, or safe-space of people who know exactly how I’m feeling.

Together, we share that heartache, frustration, or elation, and it grounds us as a group, anchors our lives in a way we can feel comfortable in, the small things that help get through a particularly tough work day.

We take solace in one another. We know how another fan is feeling. And we know how attached the team is in our daily lives. We know how typical this was or unexpected that was. We get it.

It provides lifetime family memories: going to the ballpark with your dad, seeing that playoff game with your grandma, catching that fly ball that went right to you on a random day like 100 others when you brought your glove to the park just in case. Every year football is an integral part of Thanksgiving. Without it, it would be like missing a family member.

Sports build lifelong friendships and break barriers. They are stereotype-eliminators. They allow for open communications over common ground for those who aren’t so common.

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They develop strong work ethics and teach professionalism, teamwork, competitive advancement. You learn how to succeed, and you learn how to take failure. You shake hands, and you try again.

In the stadium, I don't care what your political stance is and I don't need to know. We like the same team.

We have a common ground in a unique way that allows two people to talk when they’d otherwise have nothing to say to one another. We have a common language, for those few hours at least.

Sports can allow you to still look forward to something in the face of unimaginable grief. When the world is dark, sports can be your nightlight, coming in the form of beloved teams. They are infinite; there is always next year. They are a distraction, as well as a teacher.

Sports are often the perfect analogy for life. You lose, you try again. You win, you keep working hard. You make adjustments. You learn sympathy through sportsmanship and to be mature in the face of great loss.

You grow stronger, better, always improving, and always moving forward.

Obviously in the grand scheme of things, yes, sports are a way to funnel deep investment or emotional attachment into something that “doesn’t really matter.”

That may be true, in a grander sense. But take a step back and record the things sports taught you. Remember when you tore your ACL, and a player on the other team helped you to the sideline.

Remember congratulating your foe in a crippling defeat, still shaking hands and vowing to get better.

Remember playing catch with your dad when he was the best baseball player in the world to you.

We all need something to lean on, and sports is a wonderful anchor. And think of the stories.

A grand Cinderella story, the dirt skid from a baseball diamond, playing under Friday Night Lights, this is the stuff of life.

This world is too hard, too complicated, and too exhausting to not have something to look forward to. A distraction can be necessary for your mental health, to break up the day, or bring you some joy in a cycle of despair.

For a sports lover, hope is innate. It is necessary. It is a familiar friend. It is often foolish, yes, just ask a Jets fan.

But there is always next year.