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Kobritz: Do NBA players feel isolated, generally unhappy? Adam Silver says yes
Beyond the Lines

You can’t always get what you want,” said the Rolling Stones. Most people want money, but even when they get it, there’s no guarantee it will make them happy. Just ask NBA players.

According to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, his interactions and meetings with players have led him to believe there are “pervasive feelings of loneliness and melancholy” across the league. Silver offered his conclusion last week during a panel discussion at the 13th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Recounting a conversation he had with one NBA superstar, Silver said the player’s unhappiness and isolation were “to the point where it’s almost pathology.’’

“A lot of these young men are generally unhappy,’’ said Silver. That may come as a surprise to adoring fans. After all, NBA players have an average salary of almost $7 million, with at least three pulling down north of $30 million per year and approximately three dozen more above the $20 million mark. Clearly, money hasn’t bought happiness for all of them.

Silver’s observations are in sharp contrast to what he believes was the camaraderie and sense of team that once existed around the league. Why the feelings of despair for men who seemingly have everything – fame, money and all the trappings that go with it? According to Silver, headphones and social media are primarily to blame. Players invariably walk around with headphones on and heads down, perhaps to shield themselves from the demands of the public. But such tactics may also lead to a sense of isolation.

Social media has helped the league become more fan-friendly, gain exposure, and promote players, but Silver also acknowledged its downside. Players are constantly scrutinized, on and off the court. Everything they do, everywhere they go, somebody is recording them or taking their picture, then uploading it for public view and criticism. Players are no longer allowed to make mistakes in private. In Silver’s words, basketball players don’t have the opportunity to be a “nobody.”

The problems the league is addressing are part of a “larger societal issue,’’ according to Silver. “I don’t think it’s unique to these [NBA] players,’’ he said. “I don’t think it’s something that’s just going around superstar athletes. I think it’s a generational issue.’’

Silver may be right. According to an article posted on Psychology Today, there are a raft of studies which conclude that anxiety and depression are markedly higher today than they were in earlier eras.

It’s one thing to recognize a problem, another to do something about it. However, the players’ union is doing just that. The NBPA launched a new mental health and wellness program in May to support players with “a wide range of mental health challenges and issues.” Several teams have also added mental health professionals to their staffs. Similar actions have been taken in other sports, most notably in MLB where many teams employ “mental coaches.” Perhaps the message is, don’t assume star athletes are happy just because they have wealth, celebrity and fortune. Being rich and famous doesn’t guarantee anything except money and fame.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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