Prediction: The worst people are about to start invoking 'mental health'

July 30, 2021

Most of the conversation around Simone Biles’s decision to pull out of Olympic gymnastics competitions has been equal parts supportive and deferential to her stated reasons, at least in my circles. It’s not difficult to recognize that competing in these particular events without full confidence is far more dangerous than, say, trying to play basketball at the highest levels with an extreme aversion to shooting the ball.

However, I’ve come across a few people with different takes, which largely boil down to “she could have done something rather than pull out of the team competition completely, right?” or, in the case of the culture warriors making bad-faith arguments about how Biles’s choices reflect poorly on America more broadly, “she’s weak.”

The first argument can be a bit more nuanced. I happen to think there’s a difference between quitting because you’re you’re losing and quitting because you’re in danger. If an MLB team is down 13-0 after seven innings, they don’t end the game right there to reduce the losing team’s embarrassment, and if players refused to play out of shame that they were losing, I’d consider that a character flaw. Biles did not quit because she was losing, and even the most hard-charging critics seem to accept that. Rather, I sense a common disbelief that an athlete as dominant as Biles couldn’t help in some way, that even a diminished Biles would probably make the U.S. team perform better than it did without her.

Whether intentional or not, plenty of people in that first camp are implicitly questioning Biles’s fortitude, which places them adjacent to the second argument, which only the thirstiest attention seekers have made explicit: that Biles is weak. Without getting too far into it, this is a bizarre takeaway considering she’s won every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013 and has a credible claim to being the greatest competitive gymnast of all time. To think she’s wilting upon first facing adversity or challenge is laughable on its face, and that’s before noting she is the only current Olympic competitor to publicly acknowledge having been abused by Larry Nassar. Moreover, plenty of current and former elite gymnasts are explaining the clear danger in competing with “the twisties” to the point that ignoring or dismissing those explanations is just willful ignorance.

Biles citing mental health as her primary reason for withdrawing, coupled with Naomi Osaka’s much-publicized comments and actions about prioritizing her own mental health, is almost certainly a net good. Sports matters precisely because so many people care about them and assign them deep importance, tying them to personal and tribal identities. This could be a watershed year in reframing athletes as humans first, icons that bear the hopes and dreams of others second, which in turn could trickle down to broader cultural norms about competitive sports.

And even though I’m guessing it’s a net good, we ought to be conscious that we’ll almost certainly see instances of bad-faith actors weaponizing “taking care of my mental health” as an excuse to do whatever the hell they want, both in and out of sports.

Imagine Cole Beasley or Nick Bosa standing up in front of assembled media and saying that they cannot get vaccinated because doing so would compromise their mental health. Imagine Lauren Boebert saying that she prioritizes Americans’ mental health, and therefore she will fight for the right to be free of mask mandates, let alone vaccination passports. Imagine Donald Trump, Jr., saying he ought to be allowed to bring guns with him wherever he goes, whether that’s in New York City, Washington, DC, or Jackson Hole, because his mental health deteriorates when he’s unarmed.

You may have already started formulating arguments to counter these hypothetical claims, perhaps based on the notion that we have duties to each other that may outweigh our personal preferences, and that these sound like preferences that aren’t worth indulging in the face of collective safety and well-being. However, before engaging in such a conversation, ask yourself: Is this person trolling?

Biles and Osaka are proudly Black and have made speaking about political matters inextricable from their public personas, which makes them targets for conservatives who prefer that Black and brown people excoriate other Black and brown people for not overcoming oppression faster and not letting white people completely off the hook for their complicity in systemic racism.

After initial salvos of calling them weak, the next step is for influential conservatives to start using “mental health” as a buzz phrase they associate with pansy liberals, and then using it themselves in bad faith as a way of mocking and undermining their enemies. We’re all familiar with this song and dance as performed by Donald Trump, but I’m not sure if most Americans realize how that indicator of one man’s personal insecurity became absorbed by legions of conservatives as an ethos. Just to pick two — though it’s more widespread than them — Marjorie Taylor Greene’s entire schtick is textbook internet trolling, and Madison Cawthorn said the quiet part out loud when he noted that he’d hired staff with communications in mind rather than legislating. Because trolling is the point. And worse, that results in people like Cole Beasley, who seems sincere in his defiant stance against COVID-19 vaccination, but if he's like virtually everyone else in the world, he formed his opinions in order to fit in with a certain tribe, and the loudest anti-COVID-vaccine voices came from the Troll Wing of the GOP (until very recently).

We saw it with the phrase “fake news”. We’ve seen it with anti-vax people appropriating abortion rights language. As “mental health” becomes tied to athletes of color like Biles, Osaka, Kyrie Irving, and more to come, it’s only a matter of time until right wing trolls turn it into an epithet.

P.S. I have no way of proving it, but I suspect Kerri Strug is looming over all of this, too. It’s worth rewatching the telecast of her final two vaults during the 1996 Olympic gymnastics competition (starts around 1:14:10), during which she injured an ankle and then, urged on by her coach, Bela Karolyi, somehow executed an excellent vault while further damaging the ankle such that she had to be carried off the mat. It’s easy to see how that moment became so iconic, and Strug became an instant hero, but knowing what we know now, it’s also pretty easy to interpret the entire sequence as powered by fear and intimidation, and to sense that the adults in charge didn’t have the athletes’ best interests in mind.

(Photo: "Tucker Carlson & Charlie Kirk" by Gage Skidmore. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)