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Pistons' Blake Griffin helps shed light on maintaining mental health in social media age

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Blake Griffin

Detroit — Since his days as an All-American at the University of Oklahoma, Blake Griffin has been a celebrity and public fixture. Almost everything he does is under a microscope, but that has magnified in the age of social media.

He has a simple rule for dealing with fans and critics on social media.

“Since Twitter and Instagram, things have been said to me that you wouldn’t believe. People believe because you have an app or a connection to a player, you get to say what you want,” Griffin said. “A good rule of thumb is that if you were trapped in an elevator with me, don’t say something you wouldn’t say in the elevator.”

Social media is an added layer of complexity in the daily exercise of how athletes must deal with mental health and wellness in the new sports world. The convergence of sports and mental health is an expanding conversation, which extended Wednesday night at University Prep High School, with the help of Pistons player-development coach J.D. DuBois.

DuBois is the founder of the nonprofit organization “Everyone Has a Story,” which seeks to shed more light on mental wellness in sports. Wednesday’s panel discussion included Griffin, former professional athlete Stacey Lovelace; Brenda Lundberg Casey, a sports marketing executive and whose husband is Pistons coach Dwane Casey; Mark Ornstein, CEO of University Prep Schools and Dr. Corey Yeager, the Pistons’ team psychotherapist who served as the moderator.

Lundberg Casey pointed out that although things may seem okay from the outside, sometimes the true picture is more complex. Dealing with feelings and emotions off the court properly is as essential as practice on the court.

“Feelings are not something to be judged; feelings just are. If something happens, your reaction is your feeling and it’s not something that someone else can ever say you should feel this way or shouldn’t feel that way,” Lundberg Casey said. “For me, my husband was fired after winning coach of the year and we had been in Toronto for seven years. That was home for us and when he was fired, I felt angry, sad and alone.

“Three weeks later, he was hired here and a great situation, with a five-year contract and more money than he’d ever thought he’d make as a coach. We had a beautiful house and the kids are in a great school and I still felt sad.

“The world looked at what we had and said we should feel happy. Any time I expressed my anger or frustration, people were confused because they were looking at our life and thinking, ‘Why are you angry — you’re in a better situation.'”

The veneer of sports and celebrity sometimes hides the pain and internal turmoil that the players are going through. It’s a tough duality to endure and sometimes the messages are hidden behind more problems that need to be explored more fully, with the help of therapists or other professionals.

Overcoming the stigma of needing that help is one of the hurdles Lovelace said she encountered. Even if she sought out that help, would the information be kept confidential — and if so, how would the coaches react to it?

For DuBois, who played basketball in college at Utah, trying to cope with some of the issues without the help of a professional can be viewed differently — and sometimes incorrectly — while still masking the underlying issue.

“As a player in college, I was always glorified as the guy who would always work and was always in the gym early and after practice. We glorify that gladiator type of athlete, but we don’t really pay as much attention to the tolls it takes on a guy mentally,” he said. “For me, I was dealing with a lot of death with a lot of my friends growing up and being murdered in L.A., so I would never sleep.

“In college, I would be on two or three hours of sleep. I would be in the gym late at night and in the morning. I was being glorified for that but on the flip side, I was in the gym because I was never sleeping.”

Lundberg Casey noted that as sports have focused more on analytics, what gets lost is the human element. Throughout her husband’s coaching career, he has been renowned for his focus on player development and his relationships with players.

Some of that gets lost in the numbers.

“A lot of times, even within the organization, they use analytics. Athletes are human beings and when you only see the stats and numbers, there are people who believe you can judge a player based solely on the numbers,” she said. “My husband would tell you unequivocally that’s not correct; most of his job is dealing with the human side. You have to take that into account because it’s not a video game.

“They have a (rating) number on the video game but it’s not all of who they are.”

In her marketing work, Lundberg Casey recognizes the importance of social media and athletes having to deal with fans and critics. Griffin amplified the point, noting that social media mostly accentuates the positives but don’t always provide a complete picture.

Griffin noted that he still talks to a mental-health professional “regularly” to get things off his chest and to help formulate next-steps in dealing with potential issues. He points out that mental health is an important hot topic that doesn’t start or end with athletes, but with the prevalence of social media, the message sometimes gets contorted.

“Oftentimes, I find that people who seem like they have their stuff together and have this perfect life on social media are in fact the ones who don’t,” Griffin said. “Think about that when you’re picking people to look up to or picking friends. It’s not always what it looks like on the outside.

“The old adage of don’t judge a book by its cover couldn’t be more true today. We watch the highlight film; we don’t watch the missed shots through social media.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard