Larry Sanders, a 26-year-old NBA center who spent the past two years dealing with substance abuse and off-the-court legal troubles, is leaving basketball to focus on his mental health.
In a powerful video statement released in the Players' Tribune, Sanders candidly details his struggles with anxiety, depression and mood disorders, as well as his decision to move on from sports toward pursuits more suited to his personal well being.
Sanders' decision to talk about his struggle so publicly is both brave and laudable — especially as a representative for a league with one of the more heavily black fan bases in all of professional sports. The video is a must-watch:
"I'm Larry Sanders," he begins. "I'm a person, I'm a father, I'm an artist, I'm a writer, I'm a painter, I'm a musician. ... And sometimes, I play basketball." Sanders goes on to discuss his time at a treatment program at Rogers Memorial Hospital, a behavioral health care facility, and how it taught him "about what's important and where [he] would want to devote [his] time and energy" moving forward.
The importance of Sanders' message can hardly be overstated. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a 2002 commission established by former President George W. Bush found America's mental health care system "in shambles," marred by fragmentation and near-insurmountable barriers to treatment for millions of people.
Such disparities are uniquely felt in the black community: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health reports that black Americans are 20% more likely to report "serious psychological distress" than non-Hispanic whites, in addition to experiencing feelings of "sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness or that everything is an effort" at higher rates. Meanwhile, an ongoing history of discrimination, combined with disproportionate rates of poverty, homelessness and incarceration, make access to necessary health care especially difficult. It's an issue that is consistently under-addressed in conversations around mental health in America.
Sanders recently signed a four-year, $44 million contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, "roughly half" of which is owed to him after a buyout deal he reached with the team on Saturday, according to FOX Sports. As such, receiving quality health care is probably not a problem for him nowadays. Nevertheless, the stigma surrounding mental illness remains a universal challenge, no less so among black people.
Sanders isn't the first athlete to make such a statement, either. Royce White, who was dropped by the NBA's Sacramento Kings last season, has long been outspoken about his struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition which — among other things — prevented him from traveling with his teammates by plane. And Ricky Williams of the NFL famously left football to deal with personal issues related to anxiety, media attention and substance abuse.
After a 2013 nightclub fight that left him with a torn ligament in his right thumb, a string of negative drug tests and animal cruelty charges, it's encouraging to see Sanders prioritize self-care in a way that emphasizes his mental health over the glory and attention that comes with professional success. It's an example we can all follow — no matter who we are or what we do for a living.