To lead is to be vulnerable, honest for Ferris football players

‘We have to get away from stereotyping men and athletes as being so tough to where we’re not able to open up’

James Ceasar is a regular viewer of Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed” show, hosted by Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless. As a defensive back for Ferris’ football team, he’s naturally an avid follower of the NFL. What he saw unfold the past few days was disappointing, to say the least.

In an interview for “In Depth with Graham Bensinger,” Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott opened up about his struggles with mental health and depression, at first due to quarantine and then compounded by his brother’s suicide in April.

“I started experiencing emotions I’ve never felt before. Anxiety for the main one. And then, honestly, a couple of days before my brother passed, I would say I started experiencing depression,” Prescott said in the interview that was posted on YouTube this week.

After the interview was released, Bayless chose to respond to Prescott’s comments on air, saying that Prescott’s decision to go public with his struggles was showing weakness.

“I don’t have sympathy for him going public with ‘I got depressed, I suffered depression early in COVID to the point that I couldn’t even go workout,’” Bayless said, because he’s the quarterback for “America’s Team.”

It’s exactly comments like these that perpetuate the stigma around men—especially Black men and male athletes—sharing their struggles in mental health in Ceasar’s eyes.

“We don’t feel like we’re able to open up and be vulnerable to share those thoughts and the things we’re going through because we feel like other people will judge us or call us ‘soft,’” Ceasar said. “It’s not fair to us because they want men to put on this front that we’re tough and so hard all the time, but we go through real life stuff as well, that other people may not see. Those things get us real emotional and it does affect our play and it does affect our work.”

Ferris junior defensive back Amere Blake saw Prescott’s interview as powerful statement coming from a player with his platform. It was a message for others to know they’re not alone in their struggles. Depression impacts people differently, and it impacts people of all walks of life.

“Having all the money in the world or having the fame or having that type of job doesn’t exclude anyone from getting depressed,” Blake said. “Depression is something that’s really uncontrollable when it comes on to you.”

Part of Prescott’s reasoning for sharing his struggles publicly was because his brother, Jace, never did. It was a burden that eventually became too much for him, and Dak felt that he needed to share his burdens. It was something that Ceasar understood, as someone who has dealt with depression himself after his father passed away from cancer.

Blake, who experienced feelings of depression his redshirt freshman year after not making the travel team, said dealing with depression is on a person-to-person basis, whether it means sharing it publicly or not.

“Some people may deal with depression differently than others,” Blake said. “So for him to criticize [Dak] on the way he dealt with his depression isn’t right and that’s not the right way to go about it…depression is a person-by-person basis and for someone like [Bayless] to criticize [Dak], that’s not OK. In my eyes, that’s not OK at all.”

Another point that Bayless brought up was that he believed as a leader of a franchise, Prescott shouldn’t have shared his experiences because that made him look weak, that it made him less trustworthy in tough spots to his teammates. But for Ceasar, vulnerability from a leader means something entirely different.

Senior defensive back James Ceasar, who was awarded GLIAC Defensive Back of the Year last season, opened up about his struggles with depression following his father’s passing. Photo by: Cora Hall | Editor in Chief

“Keeping that bottled up and not expressing that can lead to self-destruction,” Ceasar said. “As a leader, you have to let your teammates see that side of you, so they know that everything that’s coming out of your mouth and everything you’re trying to give to them is real. I think being a leader, it comes with a responsibility of trying to do the right thing all the time, but sometimes those leaders go through things, too, that other people might not know about.

“Being honest with their teammates can go a long way in that relationship, and it can really be good for the whole team.”

Prescott responded to Bayless’ comments, saying to be a leader, he has to be genuine and real and make sure his mind’s in the right place before he can lead to the best of his ability.

“It’s important to be vulnerable, to be genuine, to be transparent. I think that goes a long way when you’re a leader and when your voice is being heard by so many, and you can inspire,” Prescott said.

Bayless addressed his original comments, but did not apologize for anything he said. The sports world has made strides when it comes to attitudes towards players’ mental health, but comments like his—during National Suicide Prevention Month, no less—are a glaring reminder that the stigma still exists.

With this situation and athletes taking stands on social justice issues this summer, it’s become more apparent than ever that there’s still a large population of sports fans that view athletes as just entertainers. It’s gone on for generations and it’s time to remember that athletes are humans.

“We have to get away from stereotyping men and athletes as being so tough to where we’re not able to open up and share our true thoughts about what we’re going through,” Ceasar said. “We’re ultimately suffering from it…and it just needs to stop. I don’t feel it’s fair to athletes and I don’t feel like it’s fair to men around the world.

“We’re idolized as being so strong and so tough that they forget about our true feelings and emotions that we go through on a daily basis.”

In a close-knit team like Ferris’ football squad, Ceasar said the conversations around mental health have begun to be more open and more accepted. While it may not be to the point where a player would open up to the whole team, both Blake and Ceasar say they have honest conversations with teammates about their struggles.

“It’s getting better, but a lot of men still don’t feel comfortable opening up about things they’re going through,” Ceasar said. “Even me, sometimes. I go through stuff every day, whether it’s family-wise, school-wise or athletically. People go through their own battles every day and I feel like a lot of times we still put those feelings aside to put on a front.”

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues, please call the 24/7 Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. This hotline provides free, confidential support and resources to those struggling or in distress.