The trope of the “tough guy” is common in sports. There’s an expectation that our favorite male athletes show very few emotions. They can cry, but only after an amazing comeback that wins them the series. Anger is okay, but any other emotional display is a sign of weakness and, for centuries, we the viewing public were not having it. Athletes are expected to get down, get up, and get on with things. It’s not okay to not be okay.
This kind of “toxic masculinity” has, unfortunately, has led to countless consequences. Children—young boys in particular—have role models that are prohibited from expressing emotion and learn to emulate them; athletes themselves can’t cope when times are tough. And when times are tough, as they will always be at some point, it’s all too easy for those without coping skills to deal with pain in any way they can.
We recently read a post by a hockey player who fell into the trap of the “tough guy” and nearly lost his life before getting the help he needed. Clint Malarchuk was a goalie for the Buffalo Sabres in 1989 when he experienced a horrific trauma: the blade of a teammate’s skate slit his throat during a game one night.
Clint says the first thing that came to his mind as he was bleeding on the ice was a lesson he learned during his earliest days on skates: “If you get hurt, don’t lay there on the ice like a weakling. Get up and go. Get yourself off that ice. Show that you’re tough.”
That mentality would prove to be more dangerous than the injury.
The idea that he had to make a fast and “complete” comeback drove Clint to push himself too far. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t function. He soon was self-medicating with alcohol and prescription pills. It wasn’t after he survived a self-inflicted gunshot to his head that someone finally recognized the problem: Clint had PTSD.
With the diagnosis came relief, help, and hope. But Clint suffered for years and nearly took his life before that diagnosis came.
We applaud Clint for speaking up and sharing his story. He’s not the only athlete to have suffered from mental health and addiction problems, but one of the few to speak so publicly and plainly about it. We hope that many more athletes feel free to tell their stories and that emotional intelligence is someday valued as much as free-throw percentages and consecutive starts. These individuals are the role models that our children truly need. Not the tough-as-nails superheroes, but the real humans with human emotion and human problems, learning how to deal with mental health issues safely, responsibility, and without judgment.