Sports has come a long way. Athletes are no longer seen as these specimens of infallible physical perfection. Gone are the days of Michael Jordan scoring 38 points in the NBA Finals with the flu, or Kerri Strug attempting the vault in the 1996 Olympics and earning a gold medal, or Curt Schilling pitching Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series on a torn tendon in his ankle. Athletes are now seen as they always should have been: human.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the women’s gymnastics team competition in this year’s Olympic Games. Simone Biles, who has four different skills named after her and is widely considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time (though Nadia Comaneci could give her a run for her money), made the difficult decision to drop out of both the team and individual all-around competitions. This decision, or “Biles Moment” (now her fifth skill), sparked tremendous applause, outrage, kudos, and vitriol - along with a nice amount of indifference - online and in media. August is traditionally a slow news month, so as the face of the Olympics, Biles certainly gave talking heads something for their heads to talk about.
But focusing on what this means for Biles’ legacy, or for athletes in general, is immaterial here. As previously mentioned, athletes are human. They are not simply machines that have a program uploaded and run. Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in the burden placed on athletes, especially as it relates to their health and commitment to their team. In the NFL, a higher emphasis has been placed on concussions. In the 1990s, a concussed player would have been sent back in the game after a swig of Gatorade. This extends to the world of sports entertainment as well. In 2001, wrestler Triple H tore his quadriceps completely off the bone, and allowed himself to be placed in a Boston Crab (if you’re not familiar with this move, look it up and imagine the pain). A match today would be stopped if such an injury took place.
But it’s not simply head trauma, muscle injuries, and mental health that are different in 2021. Athletes tend to support each other putting individual before team when it comes to income and contracts. If an athlete decides to sit out over a contract dispute, his or her teammates are generally supportive, even if this conduct is detrimental to the team. Twenty years ago, this would not be the case. Athletes were expected to take care of their finances on their own time, and were considered selfish if their actions impeded the progress of their team.
None of this is to say that this is good progress or bad progress or to make any sort of judgement on where sports are today. It is simply an observation that the vision of the athlete is different today than it was twenty years ago. What is actually alarming is the impact this shift has on the rest of society. All this change is all well and good for the Simone Bileses of the world. Biles already had a legacy. She will likely be able to retire on her 2016 Olympics performance alone. She will have endorsement deals, coaching opportunities, speaking engagements, and could probably compete for another few years if she wants (though the 2024 games probably will not happen). This is true for any top-tier athlete. If any athlete at a certain level has a psychological problem that prevents them from performing, even on the greatest stage in their sport, they will now be forgiven for it. They will even be invited back to compete in further events, maybe even as early as the following week.
But is this true for everyone? The vast majority of people in this world are not elite athletes with the gravitas to be able to stop performing at the most crucial moment. Take, for example, the paralegal who gets hit with an anxiety attack the week before an important client’s big case, or the teacher who has a breakdown whenever he gets evaluated by the DOE, or the stay-at-home mother who just can’t take it anymore. What happens to these people? They can’t afford to not be depended upon by their teammates – the law firm, the school, the family. If your boss thinks that you cannot handle the pressure of big situations, maybe you don’t get the big opportunities anymore. Maybe you don’t get the career advancement opportunities when they become available. Maybe you get fired. The case of the mother is even more dire. There is nowhere to go. Parents do not have the luxury of calling in sick to parenting. They cannot just decide that their family is more likely to succeed without them. These everyday people are forced to fight through the day with their mental health issues because they cannot possibly afford not to.
The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s often in relation to race or gender. However, the true mark of the privileged is their ability to afford experiences that others cannot. The athletic elite are certainly privileged. And it is not just about their income. As Simone Biles has taught us, it is also their ability to not perform at the most crucial of times. Very few people you know have that luxury. The aftermath of Biles situation can go one of two ways. Either the world will begin to acknowledge and adapt to the growing mental health issues facing society today to the point that regular people can have a Biles Moment, or it does not, and the only people allowed a Biles Moment are the elite. Only time will tell, but the outcome will determine if Simone Biles’ legacy will remain stuck on what she did for sport, or what it did for the world.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.