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Landon Donovan and the Perception of Mental Disorders in Athletes

Landon Donovan's recent hiatus left many fans questioning his motivation for both the USMNT and Galaxy. This public scrutiny based on mental illness puts Donovan squarely in the middle of a dialogue that has peaked recently. Namely, why are mental disorders relegated beneath physical injury, and what can athletes do about this lack of understanding?

Jeff Golden

Last week, Landon Donovan returned from his first vacation in four years. After winning his second consecutive MLS Cup, Donovan chose to forego World Cup Qualifiers, and LA's preseason, in order to regroup and reevaluate his dedication to soccer. In response, the soccer world lambasted him (for the most part). How could a man making millions of dollars (let alone getting paid at all) get "tired" playing soccer? Shouldn't he feel honored to play this game? If he's going to skip WCQs, should he be allowed back at all, or should we move on?

Regardless of the question being asked, the prevailing sentiment held by fans, in general, was threefold:

1. He doesn't have the right to feel the way he does
2. In feeling this way, he is doing us, as fans, a disservice
3. We should be mad at him for this disservice

I won't get into the logical leaps that have to be made in order to come to this conclusion. What I hope to do, however, is explain that what Landon successfully went through during his hiatus was a serious mental problem, and that we as a sports community are terrible at recognizing and empathizing with mental disorders.

If you are reading this as a Houston fan, the story is somewhat familiar already. A star athlete provides some promise to your team, but is unable to perform due to a mental disorder. Thus, a feeling of disgust emerges, as fans put more weight on an "honor to play" than they do a mental "ability to play". The man in question is Royce White, first round draft pick for the Houston Rockets. I could summarize his situation, but would inevitably do it a disservice. Our neighbors at The Dream Shake, however, published a fantastic story on White's dilemna early on. Regardless of whether or not Royce is abusing the faith put in him by the Rockets organization, it is clear that had this been an ACL injury, the fan outlook on his predicament would be wholly different.

The threads of our emotional well-being do not stitch themselves together like the sinews of our muscles.

And there, as Shakespeare would say, lies the rub: how can we, as fans, quantify a mental phenomenon like we do physical injuries, when the science is completely qualitative. There is no "second degree depression" or "third degree burnout" to give us a timetable for an athlete's return. The threads of our emotional well-being do not stitch themselves together like the sinews of our muscles. Most importantly, there is no scale for determining how one disorder ranks against another. So why, when Donovan announced his feelings of burnout, did the community collectively scoff?

I can answer that, because I was one of the scoffers. Well, I should qualify that - I was one who said "fine, Landon, but just retire if you feel this way". Then, the Galaxy announced that he would not be paid for his vacation. Oh, well, he's still abandoning us! Yes, but of what use would a burnt out Donovan be if he forced himself to compete without his own heart being behind it? None.

That brings me back to the ACL example. If Donovan had torn his ACL in the MLS Cup Final, his rehabilitation would be of the utmost importance. The sentiment would be "he should heal 100% before beginning a packed MLS, CCL, and WCQ schedule". Yes, we honor athletes that "fight through the pain", but we also honor those that return from injury ready to go. In the same way, Donovan needed to rehabilitate his mind before anything worse happened. Multiple studies have shown that burnout in the workplace can not only lead to depression, but is an active part of it. If your average office employee can progress in this manner, why can't an athlete who comes under constant scrutiny? Said another way, while we would all love to be making money playing a sport we love, how can we dare suggest that reaching that plateau protects one from the tribulations of mental disorders?


The NFL and MLS are currently instituting somewhat acceptable concussion treatment for athletes. In this instance, physical damage that happens to affect the brain is just now getting some of the attention that we pay to knees, ankles, and feet (can you guess which of those four things is most important?). What does that mean for disorders found solely within the synapses of our nervous system? Who knows. With the backlash leveled at Royce White and Landon Donovan, however, it is clear that we are miles away from fully quantifying the need athletes have for quality psychological treatment.

Who will affect this change in thinking? Royce White seems to be trying. Then again, his "f*** everyone" approach to that may alienate him a little bit. Is Donovan the trailblazer that those with mental disorders need? That's hard to say. While his feelings may be closer to what many of us have experienced with school, work, or life, this could be his undoing. Is his condition serious enough for us to care about?

If you read that last sentence and immediately caught the hypocrisy, I thank you, because it is laid on pretty thick. Here's how the thinking goes: I have never broken a bone, but I did have had chronic knee problems throughout my teenage years. Therefore, when I see a Louisvile player snap his leg in half, I can at least tangentially comprehend that that would hurt really, really bad.

Conversely, we use the term "burnout" to mean a number of things. Pre-med students are urged to take a year off after college to avoid getting burned out in med school. I didn't take a break, and right about now I am getting pretty sick of studying. So, I read Cracked and write about soccer, then go back to reading about the pathogenesis of pneumococcus. In this way, my perceived "burnout" is of little concern. Then, when I read about Donovan being clinically burnt out, I am conditioned to some incorrect understanding of his mental status, and assume I know how he feels - thus immediately dismissing his condition.

Does that mean we need someone with a "more serious" mental disorder to fix our misconceptions about mental health? Its troubling to even think like that, but our society has proven stubborn when it comes to changing our predisposition to judging others.

The greatest statement Donovan can make is to recover from his burnout, make it back onto the USMNT, and finish out his career on his own terms

Maybe its a good thing that Donovan noted the need for more support, but isn't going to turn every interview into a PSA. Maybe this will minimize the amount of misunderstanding that will occur from his situation. Maybe, the greatest statement he can make is to recover from his burnout, make it back onto the USMNT, and finish out his career on his own terms - preferably in a few years.

Its not clear what it will take to adjust our views towards mental health. What is clear, though, is that we as fans have no right to suggest what an athlete is feeling, how well they can cope with it, and what they should do about it. We need only take a moment to think about what it takes to be a professional athlete, then wish them the best in their recovery.