Skip Bayless made headlines this week with his callous response to a professional athlete’s mental health concern. Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott admitted that when the quarantine first began he struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Bayless wasn’t having it.
“I don’t have sympathy for him going public with, ‘I got depressed. I suffered depression early in COVID’” admitted Bayless, adding “look, he’s the quarterback of ‘America’s Team.’” He went on to speculate that this sort of admission would inhibit Dak’s ability to be a leader.
Skip also seems to have missed the fact that Dak’s brother died by suicide earlier this year.
Bayless is entitled to his opinion and has proven time and time again to be both a thoughtful analyst and human. This wasn’t one of those times.
At 68, Bayless clearly has a singular and outdated concept of “leader” in his mind. He recalls Johnny Unitas. He imagines Jim Brown. He thinks of a leader who is stoic and tough and doesn’t show emotion.
Skip is recalling the “leadership” demonstrated by on-screen versions of John Wayne.
He’s not alone. Many have grown to envision leadership the same way and, sometimes, that vision holds up. One should be tough if they want to lead, especially in a tough game like football – no problem there. Leaders should be resilient and dedicated, but there are a host of other qualities that leaders need to be successful, including the confidence to be vulnerable.
Over on ESPN, Bayless’ media peer Max Kellerman acknowledged that “the strength to show vulnerability is an important quality… in real leadership.”
Kellerman is on to something. Ray Lewis made wearing his heart on his sleeve the cornerstone of a Hall-of-Fame career. True leaders are engaged with their teammates and have the confidence to share what they are thinking and feeling.
Skip and many from his generation hang on to an old-school concept of leadership that was built up over time. This is something to be understood rather than condemned.
It’s time to re-imagine what we mean by ‘leader’
For many in his generation, demonstrations of leadership might have included a silent, strong father coming home from a demanding job and not wanting to be bothered. They might think of the soldiers who went off to war, risked their lives for their country, and didn’t want to talk about it when they came back to civilian life.
They fail to recognize that the stoicism and strength can guard one of the simplest human emotions: sadness.
Soldiers are tough. When they come back from battle not wanting to discuss the details of combat, they’re not just toughened, they’re often traumatized. And if that trauma goes unidentified, then the soldier’s chances of healing go down the drain.
Not everyone thinks this way, of course, and these scenarios aren’t ubiquitous, but it is a true danger within the way Skip Bayless seems to have been thinking.
While it was insensitive and inaccurate, Skip Bayless should not be canceled. He should be engaged in discussion. His thoughts should be examined. The thoughtful among us should work to understand why he thinks the way he does and how that sort of mindset could adapt in order to welcome conversation about important topics such as mental health. Being open to the conversation could save someone’s life.
On the flip side of this discussion, it should also be noted that there is the potential for growth here. Dak has experienced anxiety, loneliness, and loss.
Greg Lukianoff, in his book The Coddling of the American Mind, says to his reader that he hopes “you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted… and when you lose, as you will… I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.” Moments of weakness can lead to moments of growth and empowerment.
Dak made a public recognition that he has experienced a setback. He has a concern that deserves to be recognized. It’s like Dak walking to the line of scrimmage and identifying that the opposing team is sending another blitzer… if he doesn’t acknowledge it, he inhibits his ability to overcome it.
Dak is just calling out the blitz. He’ll adjust. And in doing so, he will hopefully normalize the skill of naming problems, including those as stigmatized as mental health, so we can support each other in solving them.
The modern leader balances toughness and kindness, he can score the winning touchdown and reach out to a teammate who is struggling. The modern leader is confident enough to embrace the conversation of mental health.
Coaches, leaders, mentors everywhere… are you enough of a leader to have a tough conversation with your athletes?
If you’d like support in having this conversation with your team or coaching staff, please feel free to reach out: CONTACT US.