For the 116th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Nick Hirshon describes the media’s treatment of the mental health of professional athletes.
A former New York City journalist, Nicholas Hirshon is an associate professor of communication at William Paterson University. Author of We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders, Hirshon’s research focus is on New York sports.
Featured image: Simone Biles at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil (CC BY 3.0 BR)
Nick Hirshon: When you’re appearing on posters and in advertisements across the world, you want to live up to the faith that people have in you and that image that they have. So, of course that is going to affect your mindset.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following first amendment principles in a digital first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
Professional athletes are revered in our culture. We devote a lot of attention to them and the sports they play. And in many cases, news coverage treats them up a bit differently than it does other topics. That’s certainly true according to Dr. Nick Hirshon, professor of communication at William Patterson University and the co-host of this show. In this episode, Hirshon explains that the stigma that has historically tainted media coverage of mental illness is much more nuanced in news coverage of professional athletes.
Nick, welcome to the show. This is, it’s fun, right, to host a host right here? This is – this should be a fun episode. Uh, why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about this project. I get furious because you find such an interesting way of always doing these research projects about what you love.
You’re just so obviously passionate about your research. You find such interesting angles that deal with New York sports. How did you find this angle specifically?
Nick Hirshon: Uh, yeah. Well, thanks, Ken, for interviewing me about this. It’s fun to be on the other side as a host of the Journalism History podcast, but to be on this interviewee side. Um, yeah, well, I think we’re best as historians when we’re passionate about whatever we’re researching pretty obviously, and when we can share that passion with our readers. It’s just like us as teachers and our students. If we like the subject, then the students are going to see our enthusiasm will be infectious.
And I’m someone who has just loved history since I was a kid. I grew up in New York City as a fan of two sports teams, the New York Mets and the New York Islanders. All my social media followers will know that because I’m posting all the time from baseball and hockey games. And, you know, the way this particular project started is I always like to collect sports autographs. I still do that. And years ago, I saw that a former Mets outfielder from long before my time, Jimmy Piersall, was going to be signing autographs at a sports memorabilia convention near my house.
So, I went and got him to sign a baseball. And I had heard that he was a really eccentric kind of a player. At one point in 1963, most famously, he celebrated hitting his 100th career home run by running around the bases backward. And at the convention, they were actually selling that photograph. They have these glossy 8x10s of him looking over his shoulder as he’s running backward over home plate. And, and so at first you think like, oh yeah, he’s just a character.
And then I started reading, learning more about him and his story was a lot more nuanced. He wasn’t just unconventional. He was living with bipolar disorder and his story was made into a film that a lot of our listeners may know in 1957, Fear Strikes Out. So, that got me thinking about mental health and sports. And then also as an Islanders fan, a few years ago in 2018, the Islanders acquired a goaltender named Robin Lehner and he wrote a piece for The Athletic, a sports news website about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD.
And I saw that season, the Islanders were really good. Lehner had a wonderful season for them, and fans began to relate to him and they would open up on social media about their own mental health challenges and how they felt connected to Robin Lehner, because he was so vulnerable and open up about that. So I think that that’s really interesting to me. Of course, we’re going to get into this, but mental health, unfortunately historically, has had a stigma associated with it.
So, when a public figure, especially an athlete who is supposed to be these masculine athletes that, you know, I’m talking about these sports where, you know, maybe someone might be concerned that they’re showcasing some sort of character flaw if they admit to a mental health challenge. And yet we are seeing it happen more frequently. I think we’re seeing more sensitive news coverage about it. Um, so that’s kind of what’s brought me to write this chapter about these 70 years of mental health, you know, coverage of mental health challenges in athletes.
Ken Ward: So, walk us through how the news media have covered mental health then. I’m guessing if we go back to the beginning, would that be somewhere around Nellie Bly? Am I right in thinking that might be where the story would start?
Nick Hirshon: Yeah. I mean, Nellie Bly is definitely a big part of how we view mental health coverage in the United States. I started looking a little bit before Nellie Bly famously feigned insanity in 1887 and went undercover as an asylum patient for a series that she wrote in the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper. But before that, kind of look at the news coverage of mental illness that you could probably best characterize it as inconsistent. We have to remember the press is a product of the society in which it operates and really until the late 19th century until the time of Nellie Bly, our leaders weren’t even investing much in mental health care.
Some statistics in 1840, only three states had public mental health hospitals, but by 1880, there were almost 140 public and private mental health hospitals, and nearly 40,000 patients. By 1940 that’s now growing, multiplying to nearly half a million mental health patients. So, as society is beginning to devote more resources to mental health facilities, then I think we see a correlation with media coverage about mental illness and maybe more sensitivity in that kind of coverage because we see it’s a problem that’s affecting a large number of people, potentially even including the journalists themselves and people who they know.
Um, but as you mentioned, whenever historians talk about news coverage of mental health in the United States, they start talking about Nellie Bly and her series in 1887, Ten Days in a Madhouse, and that was really fitting of yellow journalism of late 19th century. They’re trying to appeal to audiences with these sensational stories about innocent people who are wrongfully confined in asylums, and these really terrible stories about patients with callous families who have someone committed for a sordid reason, and they want to get them out of the way, and they find some willing partner and a doctor who’s eager to add another paying customer for the asylum.
It’s terrible to think about that. Um, or even psychiatrists good naturedly thinking that some innocent person needs to be committed just because they were acting somehow strangely or were a political dissident or had some counter-cultural opinion. So, the problem, of course, as Nellie Bly’s series showed us, was that asylums were ripe for abuse. Patients are neglected.
In her series, she describes how they’re tied together with ropes and forced to sit in the cold on hard benches, living amid rats and filth. And she’s convinced by the time that she finally gets out of the asylum, that a lot of the people there, in her words, are just as sane as she was, and yet they’re doomed to the rest of their lives, potentially, in these filthy places.
So that’s still probably the most famous instance of a journalist examining care for the mentally ill. And I think that might be misleading, though, because when we think of Nellie Bly there, she’s exposing a problem with the way that we treat mental illness, but that could lead us to believe that most press coverage is very sympathetic, and that really wasn’t the case, as you can imagine.
Ken Ward: So, what did press coverage look like as, as years went by then? Right? How did – how did the news media as time went on portray mental illness?
Nick Hirshon: It was really rarely showing people with mental illness as attractive or likable or competent. Really the most positive coverage of mental illness would be people who aren’t having any success beyond just the ability to cope with their illness on a day-to-day basis, but they’re not shown as being productive. In fact, they’re often shown as being violent and often the press points out when someone who has committed a crime that we still see this today has a mental illness and they kind of point to that as being the cause of whatever they did.
Or maybe that makes the public start to think, well, people who have a mental illness are inherently evil and have something intrinsically wrong with them that is going to lead them to commit violent actions. And some of the headlines I was coming up in my research, which were alarming to me because I again grew up in New York City.
Um, so seeing the New York Post had a headline in the ‘80s, “Freed mental patient kills mom.” And as late as 1989, this is what I’m still growing up in New York City, the New York Daily News, which is a newspaper that I worked for, for six years, they had a headline about, “Getting the violent crazies off of our streets.”
Ken Ward: Wow.
Nick Hirshon: And you know, we, again, associate sensational coverage with these tabloids, but maybe more of like the yellow journalism of the late, you know, 19th century, not so much coming that much into the 20th and the 21st. So, a lot of unflattering depictions over the years.
Ken Ward: So, how does that then combine with your interest in sports and athletes, right? Can you give us some historical examples of athletes? You’ve mentioned a couple already, but a couple of athletes who’ve lived with mental illness and how they may have been treated in the media.
Nick Hirshon: Well, it’s interesting there because I feel sports is a bit of a different animal, that it’s a subject that really hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. That’s why I want to write this chapter. Hope it will be valuable, but you can’t really frame a professional athlete with the same sort of negative frames I just mentioned for the average member of the public. I mean, we lionize athletes. They’ve achieved financial success, cultural capital.
We view them as the most successful, sometimes people, role models in our country. So, how can you, you know, portray a professional athlete who is a physical specimen as an unattractive person? How can you call them incompetent or unproductive when they’re winning a gold medal, for example? And you know, to give you some of those examples, like I did say Jimmy Piersall, you know, he broke into the big leagues with the Red Sox in 1952 in Boston.
And before he revealed his bipolar diagnosis, before he realized that he was bipolar, he was making headlines for fighting with a New York Yankees player on the field. People ran onto the field after he revealed his diagnosis and they would call him a nut and all this sort of stuff. But honestly, a lot of the news coverage I found of Jimmy Piersall, surprisingly wasn’t very negative. They kind of were sensitive to what he was going through.
Probably the most offensive thing would be a series that he himself wrote in 1955, wrote a series for the Saturday Evening Post titled, “They called me crazy and I was.” Um, and I – just that title alone is sort of eye catching, which it’s intended to be, but also sort of like, well, you know, he’s calling himself crazy. That’s something that’s not, doesn’t seem the most appropriate term to use. And it’s not always very sensitive in the article. He talks about going berserk, but the Saturday Evening Post also gave him a platform to describe how he “recovered,” in his words, from mental illness.
And he even compares it to things like pneumonia or chicken pox or a broken leg, you know, it’s like anything else. I think there is a good message in there that you could overcome a mental health struggle and he wants people to know you’re not forever contaminated by it. Uh, and then over the years we’ve seen lots of different athletes Monica Seles and Chris Evert in tennis, talking about wanting to run away and hide and facing depression or anxiety or Monica Seles had a binge eating disorder. There was a Netflix documentary recently about another athlete, another tennis player, Mardy Fish who struggled with anxiety.
And then in most recent years, we have athletes like Simone Biles is probably the most prominent example in the summer of 2021, when she was competing in the Olympics and probably the biggest American star at this long-awaited Olympics that was delayed by the pandemic. And then stunningly in the vault, she ends up realizing apparently in the middle, midair that the pressure of all these heightened expectations are getting to her.
And so, she walks off the mat and says, “I’m not mentally prepared to continue competing.” And later she was talking about fighting off her demons. And I kinda was stunned by that news coverage again, 2021, because I look back, imagine in like the Cold War if an American athlete had left the mat in the middle of a competition, not because of an obvious physical injury, but because they say they’re mentally unprepared or having some mental challenge.
And then as a result, what happened with Simone Biles is that the American gymnastic team ended up winning silver instead of gold. The Russians won gold. So, imagine the kind of coverage you might’ve seen in the Cold War of that, as opposed to what ended up happening, which was a lot of outlets, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, calling her the ultimate teammate, because even though she didn’t compete for the rest of that competition, she said, “I’m going to stick around and watch my teammates and cheer them on.”
And so, you know, athletes like her, Naomi Osaka, tennis player, Michael Phelps. Um, a lot of times recently, I think the media has been a lot more sensitive.
Ken Ward: You know, I’m curious what difference you might see in terms of the media coverage of these athletes before they come out with a diagnosis or it becomes public in some way versus after. In the case of Biles, I don’t know the story exactly, but I don’t get the impression that there was much conversation about that beforehand. It was very much she was the favorite. That’s how I remember the coverage at least. But with someone like Piersall, where some of these things were very open, very public before any kind of diagnosis, but it’s all happening on the field. Um, do you observe any difference in terms of how the media treats those two phases of their, their public struggle with, with mental health?
Nick Hirshon: Yeah, well, that’s what’s interesting because mental health is so delicate and ever changing, right? And some people can have mental health changes from moment to moment based on their circumstances. And as you point out the public, the press may not know that an athlete is dealing with a mental health challenge until they reveal it themselves.
So, a lot of times, yeah, I mean, you’ll see maybe critical coverage of an athlete saying they’ve done something reckless on the field or off the field, right? Because, and this is not to give athletes a pass because sometimes they are committing actions that they themselves admit later on were not right, but there may be coverage of, for example, domestic abuse, alcoholism, taunts that they do to fans on the field or just kind of show boating on the field, hot dogging.
And that’s the sort of thing that Jimmy Piersall was accused of, and a lot of players and reporters didn’t like that so much, but they didn’t realize that it was because of a bipolar disorder, not just a personality trait. And again, that’s a very delicate like, well, what, where does that stop? Where is it something that is a sign of a healthy display of someone’s personality versus someone feeling that they are facing so many challenges and pressures, stressors that they are acting out?
So, I think that sometimes you’ve got to forgive the media because they just aren’t quite sure what to make of that sort of behavior. Um, but like in the example with Jimmy Piersall, I honestly saw a lot of straight reporting of just, this is what happened at the game. Jimmy Piersall got into an argument with another player on the field, you know, there, he got, had to be restrained. He had some sort of a panic attack or, you know, and the doctors are now looking at him and saying that he’s doing better. Honestly, I was surprised at how sensitive and straight they were playing a lot of that. And then once he revealed it was much more of the sort of accepting and trying to understand his struggle.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s double surprising to me because I, and again, I’m, I’m no, I don’t know nearly as much the sports journalism as you, but it always seems to me like sports journalism, it’s so driven by narrative, right? It’s so story dependent, it lends itself to a more feature-y style of reporting.
Um, and they, it sounds like they pivot in this case to just the facts, right? Trying to be a little bit more distant, more reserved, whereas oftentimes you might see your, at least your hometown news organization, your publication kind of being a booster for the team. There’s no real veneer of objectivity there. Um, can you speak to that at all? Is there any difference in terms of kind of the style that these, these stories would take when it comes to these issues?
Nick Hirshon: Sure. I mean, sports writing, as you say, it’s a, kind of lends itself to more of that feature writing. And especially, I think in recent years where most people already are getting the scores of the games and the basic game summaries from some other source, you know, they’ve seen this already on television or on social media, so they don’t really look to sports writers to tell them that. They’re looking more for nuance. Um, and that’s where a lot of sports writers take liberties and give opinion and analysis.
But, you know, I think it’s what we’re also seeing is, you know, back in Jimmy Piersall’s day, maybe the sports writers didn’t have to be as concerned with public reaction to what they were writing. They might get some letters to the editor, but beyond that, or they might face a little bit of backlash in the clubhouse. Let’s say they write something negative about Piersall. They say something offensive about him, then the next day they have to go to the clubhouse and show their face to Jimmy Piersall himself or to some of his teammates.
And those teammates, coaches may not take kindly to that. But honestly from the public, they weren’t getting the sorts of reaction that today I think a lot of journalists are kept honest because they’re concerned of how might this play on Twitter and Instagram and so forth. Um, and now maybe you could say that they shouldn’t be influenced as much by that, right? They should just report what is factually accurate. Um, I do think that that has to play into the sort of reception and yeah. You know, and sometimes as you’re pointing out, if sports writers are boosters for a certain team and they are, you know –
there’s a lot that’s been written over the years about the ethics of sports writers accepting free tickets to games and maybe other sorts of gifts that are common in that profession, but wouldn’t be acceptable for say a political reporter to accept free access to a highly paid event, or they would be criticized maybe more than they would in sports. And so, I think that, I don’t know if it’s that they’re just feeling once someone has admitted that they’re facing a problem, that it doesn’t seem to be in good taste to knock them while they’re down.
But yeah, again, I don’t, I’m not quite sure, I’ll still be putting that all together, I think in this research, but why I really thought there was going to be a lot more things that made me go wow, like the title of that Jimmy Piersall, you know, ‘They called me crazy and I was.” I thought I’d be seeing a lot more of that and saying, wow, look at how we’ve changed. And it was, you know, I think that you would have seen a lot more of that coverage maybe in the 1800s, early 1900s, or maybe about people who were not athletes.
But athletes still occupied this kind of rarefied space, and we hold them up as heroes, maybe in some ways that they shouldn’t always be. But I think that’s part of it.
Ken Ward: Sure. You know, having studied this, one question I have is how much, how much of some of the struggles that some athletes may have when it comes to mental health broadly are actually caused by the spotlight of the media itself? So, do you have a sense how much of the spotlight that the media cast on these folks itself doesn’t necessarily cause, but intensifies the issues with mental health that some of those athletes may be experiencing?
Nick Hirshon: Certainly, I mean, professional athletes, part of their job is how do you handle that increased media attention? You have to do post-game interviews. You have to live with seeing your personal life, your family life, right? Everything under a microscope. And that comes with the territory. That’s why you’re getting paid millions and millions of dollars. And so, I think a lot of people are maybe not as sympathetic to them sometimes because of that, you know, in thinking, well, you know, you’re getting paid a lot more than I am, so yeah, you should have to deal with some of that and you have a lot of resources to figure that out.
But there’s no doubt that people like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps have directly spoken to that. There’s a pressure to perform. And when you’re appearing on posters and in advertisements across the world, you know, you want to live up to the faith that people have in you and that image that they have. So, of course that is going to affect your mindset and sports itself is such a fragile thing, right?
It could be a second off, could be the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all. Um, you know, an inch away from catching a ball, you know, could be winning a World Series or being the goat – not GOAT like greatest of all time as it’s now become, but the original definition of a goat being the scapegoat for something wrong that’s happened.
So, yeah, I mean, the media definitely plays a role and maybe that’s why in recent years we’re seeing them be a little bit more self-conscious about how do we cover athletes with these challenges?
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, Nick, we’re running short on time, but this is an interesting situation. As the guest, you get to answer this question that we so often ask our guests, right? To you, why does journalism history matter?
Nick Hirshon: There’s so many reasons. And I would say, when I look at this topic in particular, we often talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion in historically marginalized communities, but usually that conversation centers on gender and race as it should. But let’s also expand that to things like mental health coverage because, you know, you’re asking why does journalism history matter?
Because we’ve seen that news coverage will affect people’s mindsets, you know? News coverage of the mentally ill will have a stigma that, you know, assigns to people that then years later they are still living with.
They are maybe reluctant to seek care because of it. Um, they don’t know how to make sense of what they’re going through because it’s been criticized, or on the flip side, if they see positive coverage of folks like Simone Biles going through what she did, then maybe that will influence them to say, you know, it’s time for me to get the help that I need and talk to a therapist or maybe look into medication or whatever strategy. So, I think it helps us understand our worlds are informed by the media, by the press.
So seeing the messages that the press is encouraging us to think about promoting, that helps us understand what people’s mindsets are going to be throughout the centuries, and, and that’s really what I think, you know, is important here for, for journalists to reflect on, too. Like we need to learn more about mental illness, and journalists should be interviewing mental health professionals and attending workshops with them.
And when people they’re dealing with have their own mental health challenges, listen to them carefully, let them tell their own story and try to engage there. It’s very tricky, but I think as we’re navigating a pandemic and uncertain political landscape, we’re going to see people continue to have mental health challenges and talk about it so we can learn from the history of how it’s covered, see how we should maybe treat people now and in the future.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, Nick, thank you again for sitting on the other side of the microphone this time. Uh, it was it was great talking to you here.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah. Great. Thank you so much for having me, Ken. Thank you for letting me talk about a topic I think is very important. I appreciate it.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night and good luck.