"I think we live in the age of anxiety."

This was NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the recent Sports Analytics Conference in an interview with The Ringer's Bill Simmons.

Never before have we heard such a prominent sports executive address the major concerns around mental health quite like this.

This was real speak. And, as sports fans, we all should listen.


Prompted by a Simmons question about how many NBA players seem unhappy, Silver volunteered the anxiety theme which he sees in so many global superstars throughout his league.

"I've read studies on this – I think a direct part of it is a product of social media. When I meet with these players what strikes me is they are truly unhappy," Silver, approaching the five-year mark of his tenure, said. "This is not some show they're putting on for the media.

"To the outside world they see the fame, the money, all the trappings that go with it. They're the best in the world at what they do. People say 'how is it possible they could even be complaining?'

"I hear this on television all the time. A lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy. Some have come from very difficult circumstances – that doesn't help. Some are amazingly isolated."

While focused his sphere of basketball, Silver could easily have been addressing any other sport – from athletics to tennis, football, rugby, cricket or boxing.

All are confined and consuming. Many involve long periods on the road away from home. All demand similar characteristics from their stars.

Silver also pointed to the global trend of identifying athletes at younger ages. From pre-teen years many grow up surrounded by immense expectations – their worlds mapped out well before they even know who they really are.

These athletes now evolve surrounded by constant scrutiny; in a world where camera phones are at every turn. It is difficult to know who to trust so the circle of those they feel they can confide in becomes finite.


Mistakes are made in full view of the public; judgments swiftly passed, often by the nameless and faceless of social media who these days can fire direct, abusive messages without second thought.

From the outside, elite professional athletes have it all. Often, though, reality is far removed from such perceptions.

Silver said: "You do have unhappy people and it kills me."

Team sports environments have changed, too. Silver referenced Michael Jordan's Bulls era of the '90s, and how the camaraderie of that team was central to their remarkable success in claiming six titles.

In the modern world of strict process driven schedules, this influential ingredient can be lost. It is not uncommon, for instance, for teams to fail to properly celebrate or acknowledge significant achievements, as so often it is onto the next match.

"There was classic team building going on all the time. They [the Bulls] were a band of brothers on the buses, on the planes. All the attention only brought them closer.


"Years ago Isaiah Thomas said to me championships are won on the bus.

"If you're around a team in this day and age their headphones are on; they're isolated and they're head down."

The wider context of this ongoing discussion is sport merely reflects our youth.

Screen time, social media, anxiety and depression are all larger societal issues.

In a world full of influencers, pressures and false reality, fake smiles can be difficult to decipher – even with those we believe we know best.

No one wants to show vulnerability or appear weak when, in fact, the opposite is true.
Vulnerability should inspire, not frighten, but it takes courage to speak up.


What makes you vulnerable is, actually, what makes you human.

The more we recognise this in elite sports men and women; the more they are willing to help others by being open and honest in their struggles, the more awareness and acceptance will be generated.

Sharing is strength. Sharing breaks down stigmas and barriers and, ultimately, sharing saves lives.

"I don't think it's unique to these players – it's not just going on with superstar athletes. It's a generational issue."

Sport is not immune from societal trends. In some cases it magnifies them.

If loneliness and anxiety is commonplace among those with money and fame, any wonder it touches so many others who face every day challenges stemming from finance, health, career and relationships.


Whether you are a high school student, NBA star or All Black, engaging in real conversations helps ease burdens.

The pictures we see may not be as they seem but we don't know unless we ask.


If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here