Real men get sad, real men cry, real men struggle.
So do not place Celtics star Jaylen Brown on a pedestal and gaze up at him as some sort of stoic superhero.
Because Brown and more and more of his peers, especially in the NBA, do not accept the premise that their elite athletic status inoculates them from having to wage war with mental-health demons or simply have to process negative emotions like the rest of us try to on a daily basis.
That pedestal is more than unsafe to step onto.
It’s not even real to begin with.
“It’s great to be part of the generation where the narrative is continuously changing,” Brown said Monday morning at the Auerbach Center, “because 10 years ago it might not have been as popular or as likely for somebody to open up and speak about their feelings and do it publicly.
“I definitely think it’s still a problem, for sure. Where I was raised [outside of Atlanta], masculinity was one of the things that my friends talked about. There was a problem over masculinity, people portraying toughness and then people trying to ‘out-tough’ each other, and that ultimately leads to violence.
“That was a problem. Everybody’s walking around with a chip on their shoulder, trying to be something that they’re not. They feel like that’s a need for them to survive.
“So now, it’s creating a community and atmosphere for anything to grow, or feel comfortable and feel safe about.
“Frankly, living in Boston, some of those conversations need to be had, too. There’s places and areas where people don’t care how you feel, they care about how you perform. A lot of young players in this city struggle with the balance ”
Brown spoke at a panel dedicated to sports and mental health, held in conjunction with NBC Sports Regional Networks and Religion of Sports’ November mental health initiative. The panel, moderated by NBC Sports Boston’s Trenni Kusnierek, also featured former Patriot Ted Johnson, Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and mental health professional Dr. Jonathan Jenkins.
The documentary “Head Strong: Mental Health and Sports” airs this Friday at 8 p.m. on NBCSB.
To have athletes such as Brown and Johnson confront and confess to toxic masculinity and mental health problems off the field should become as organic and natural to sports as discussing the ins and outs of a team or athlete’s performance.
The goal is not to separate the two. Don’t even try.
“This is not a sports thing, this is an everybody thing,” said Stevens. “We’re all just here to support each other as we try to find our own happiness. Jaylen is a heck of a basketball player but I don’t think Jaylen sees himself or defines himself as a basketball player, and I think that’s every one of these guys in this sporting world.
“The idea of them having to put this cape on can be really tough.”
The notion of male athletes as unfeeling superheroes has been passed down from generation to generation, and the stigma of seeing them showing weakness will not dissolve overnight.
Johnson, who has been forthright about his struggles with addiction, expressed his admiration for Brown and NBA commissioner Adam Silver who “makes it OK for players to talk about it. I give it up to Coach Stevens here, supporting his player Jaylen and talking about this.
“I’m a little jealous. I think it’s awesome. No offense, I just can’t imagine [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick being here with me here today, but I respect that Coach Stevens is here.”
Johnson acknowledged there is still a long way to go before mental-health issues are completely destigmatized, but it starts with hearing truths directly from their lips.
“To hear an athlete, someone you look up to and admire, talk about personal struggles, it is one of the most courageous things,” said Johnson. “In sports, we buy into the propaganda, too, we buy into the image of we are cyborgs and we don’t have feelings and we are warriors and we are gladiators. I get that. That’s the image we want to project, but there’s a lot going on behind that.”
Stevens said he tries to get his players to shut out social media as much as possible.
“I think the praise can be intoxicating and I think the negativity can be debilitating,” said Stevens. “I think that that is real, whether people want to say that or not.
“Without question, the negativity specifically can contribute to or trigger the onset of depression, anxiety, and that is real. That’s the unfortunate part of all of this.”
Jenkins’s final thoughts echoed those uttered in a clip from the documentary.
“Like the gentleman in the film said, emotions are part of your human experience, so why are we stigmatizing people for having emotions?” said Jenkins. “Because we all have them.
“We should be embracing them, and really helping [people] get the help that they need or just providing them support when they’re in need.”