In case you don't know who Ron Artest is, he's a basketball player who hasn't had a very good reputation. He's caused problems on some of the teams he's played for, he spent 10 days in jail because of a domestic abuse charge, and he's best known for being part of a brawl in which he punched a fan at a game. So why am I saying that he is now a very important role model?
We're used to hearing athletes after a victory thanking their mothers, coaches, and sometimes even their teammates. They often thank God, and that always seems weird to me to think that God was rooting for one team rather than the other. I'm not even sure He's a sports fan. So when the Los Angeles Lakers recently won the NBA championship, it was a little shocking to hear Ron Artest saying, "I want to thank my psychiatrist."
Artest seems to have turned his life around. He hasn't gotten in trouble lately, he's involved in some philanthropic causes, and he has started a program called Xcel University to help high-risk kids. Maybe his deciding to see a psychiatrist was another step in turning his life around.
I was somewhat amused by Artest's thanking his shrink, but a week or so later, a friend of mine said what a great thing it was that Artest made that statement. My friend, Sandra, pointed out that it was good for an athlete like Artest to admit that he was seeing a psychiatrist.
I realized that Sandra couldn't have been more right. Here was a tough, manly, macho guy telling the world that he was getting psychiatric help -- and that it was working. That's why I think, at least because of that moment, that he is an important role model.
Most male athletes -- and maybe most males -- have learned to keep their emotions to themselves. Think about the famous movie line, "There's no crying in baseball." There's also no admission of fears, anxiety, or depression in any big-time sport. Players are taught to "man up" when something bothers them. When helmets were first mandated in hockey, many players said they didn't really need them. If they have to act like they don't care about their heads getting hit by a puck, they certainly aren't going to feel comfortable admitting that something is bothering them inside their heads.
When they turn pro, athletes suddenly earn more money than they ever dreamed of. Strangers cheer their every move. And before you know it, they're in a Holiday Inn with two hookers and enough drugs to sedate the entire population of Rhode Island.
I think teams should have a therapist on the payroll and make it mandatory that rookies see him or her at least once. After that, they should know that they can go to therapy as much or as little as they want. Maybe if they see that the veterans aren't embarrassed to get help, they won't be, either.
Like many people, athletes generally only get help after they've messed up big time. Maybe Ron Artest wouldn't have been in that brawl if hehad already admitted to himself that he needed help. Maybe some of those athletes who take their guns with them to nightclubs would stay home with their families if they got help for their unspoken insecurities. Who knows? Maybe Tiger Woods would have behaved himself -- or at least stopped at two or three.
Athletes are heroes to many people, especially kids. It's refreshing that for once the message from a big time athlete is not that it's cool to drive a car 100 miles per hour, that graduating is for geeks, or that the rules of marriage only apply to women. The message was that it's cool to get help if you need it.
If a six-foot, seven-inch sports figure feels that there's no reason to be ashamed about seeing a therapist, maybe at least a few people who are shorter than he is will feel the same way. Even if it's silly, people still seem to believe that truly manly men are big, strong guys. I guess society hasn't evolved enough to realize that the real manly men are those who look fear in the eyes and man up as they grind out a column every week, without even wearing a helmet.