Pity the Zoomer Athlete
Why the Gen Z stars seem more easily broken
There are many great dialogue exchanges in Mad Men, but this is the one I keep coming back to. In it, aging bon vivant Roger Sterling chastises the slightly younger depressive genius Don Draper over his lack of joy when drinking. There’s a lot to the conversation, but I’m fixated on the generational aspect, which seems to rhyme with current chasms.
You don't know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it's good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it's what men do.
Draper shoots back with an indictment of the older generation’s ways:
What about shaky hands, I see a lot of that with you boys?
Sterling ignores him, continuing on.
No joke. Your kind with your gloomy thoughts and your worries, you're all busy licking some imaginary wound.
Draper responds through a smile with, “Not all imaginary,” to which Sterling dismisses with, “Yeah, boo-hoo,” right before he gulps another drink.
Sterling fought in World War II, which traumatized him, but at least offered a measure of generational pride. Draper fought in the less decisive Korean War, where he stole a deceased soldier’s identity. At one point in the series, Draper tells Sterling, “You boys used up all the glory.” Draper’s mettle was tested but the experience didn’t bring resolution or meaning. He looks to alcoholism as a reprieve while Sterling looks to it as a reward. Neither man is healthy, but one sees fewer reasons to be miserable.
Stereotypically, the older generation is struck by the younger generation’s softness, but connected to that famous concern is this other issue, one probably rooted in basic paternal instinct. The great philosopher Charles Barkley, who knows how to drink, once said, “As an adult, all you want is your kids to be happy. That’s what you work for. To give your kids everything in life.” On the Turner set, Barkley focuses on the next generation’s supposed softness, but he’s also picked up on the sadness. Barkley once called Kyrie Irving “the most miserable person I’ve ever seen,” and said of this new crop of NBA stars, “Listen ... these guys are making $20, $30, $40 million a year. They work six, seven months a year. We stay at the best hotels in the world. They ain't got no problems.”
Barkley was, in part, reacting to a 2019 pronouncement by NBA commissioner Adam Silver that, “I think those players we're talking about, when I meet with them, what strikes me is that they are truly unhappy."
How can it be? To have everything one stereotypically wants in their 20s, but still feel lower than many an obscure mediocrity? Silver posited that this was “a direct product of social media,” which is unfortunate for a league that went all in on merging its brand with Twitter.
Silver’s observation is reminiscent of how the fictional Roger and Don had this conversation about generational ennui, all while working in advertising. That industry, which sprang up suddenly, used the mass media of its era to induce new insecurities, all for the sake of selling products. The TV-watching generations were the most privileged in human history, but that device kept telling them they had these inadequacies and voids. Now, we have social media as entertainment, which hooks people not just on advertising’s manipulations but also on a public-status competition between peers.
So the issue we’ve seen in basketball players is bigger than basketball, of course. Prominent Zoomer athletes have been quite public about their sadness and mental health issues, perhaps more public than yesteryear’s athletes were about cheerily hawking Wheaties. Whatever Adam Silver was noticing in his private conversations with players, well, there’s plenty more where that came from. Don’t be surprised if the next decade is replete with athletes rising fast, only to declare themselves miserable in public.
Overall, the young are not especially happy. You can see this just by noticing, through anecdotes and small-scale observation, but yes, there’s data to support this suspicion. In fall of 2021, Pew Research clocked 32% of the age 18-29 demographic as experiencing “high psychological distress.” You might think, during the Covid era, that the disease-vulnerable older demographic would report high levels of anxiety, but only 13% of the over-65 set classified themselves that way.
According to Pew, there’s even a big gap between Generation Z and the slightly older generations, those Millennials and Gen Xers. Among the age 30-49 set, 54% would classify themselves as having “low psychological distress.” That figure is at only 36% for the Zoomers.
In June of 2020, the CDC released a survey that suggested one in four adults age 18-24 had contemplated suicide. The Harvard Youth Poll, which surveyed 2,513 Americans ages 18 to 29 in spring of 2021, relayed that 51% of respondents reported at least several days in the previous two weeks of feeling down, depressed or hopeless.
The gloom boom has coincided with the elevation of mental health as a subject in high-end athletics. Famous athletes are conveying their mental health struggles to the fans, and receiving favorable media coverage for their revelations. Perhaps the healthiest example of this happened near the beginning of the trend, when DeMar DeRozan went public regarding his bouts with depression and anxiety back in 2018. DeRozan was seeking to help others with similar issues and very well might have. He let people know they’re not alone, while he served as an example of perseverance. Since then, DeRozan’s done even better than “perseverance,” at least professionally. The midrange king is having his best season yet with the Chicago Bulls.
The DeRozan example, of a person who does their job and elevates despite internal struggle, isn’t a story we’re being told as much. Current Brooklyn Net Ben Simmons stopped showing up for work when he was a Sixer earlier in the season. The retroactively given reason? Mental health issues, as publicly declared by his agent. Outside the NBA realm, gymnastics superstar Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic events this summer. After showing up to Tokyo, Biles told the team doctor and coach that she wasn’t in the right “headspace” to perform. Fair enough, as having the “twisties” seems like a potentially dangerous problem for someone who’s about to be airborne, but the broader media could not stop at excusing Biles’ absence as justified. Immediately after the news was reported, various journalists sought to deflect criticism of the gymnast. Later in the day, they’d worked themselves into a new narrative, one where Biles’ decision to quit was an act of “radical courage,” as the The New Yorker called it.
USA Gymnastics sent out an email about the withdrawal that read:
We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.
Quitting wasn’t just understandable, but extravagantly heralded. Time magazine made Biles its Athlete of the Year in 2021, mostly on the basis of taking a break from being one. An accompanying essay by Serena Williams appraised, “Simone Biles is a shining example of what success looks like when you let go of what the world thinks and gather your strength from yourself ... from your soul."
Our athletes, as well as many other celebrities, are very focused on the self these days. Biles certainly was when reflecting on her Olympics decision:
I feel like I learned the most about myself during Tokyo. How courageous, how brave I am. Because I always like to fake bravery. But I really think that solidified me being brave, speaking up for myself and just putting myself first.
The shift from celebrating triumph over adversity to praising pressure evasion has come with an elevation of narcissism. Don’t focus on others and their picayune pressures. Focus on you. Put yourself first. That’s the road to mental health.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka, recently crowned the world’s highest-paid female athlete ever, is perhaps the greatest athletic sadness symbol going. In her most recent controversy, a flameout at Indian Wells, you can see a confluence of modern trends. On March 13, Osaka lost in straight sets to Veronika Kudermetova in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open. You perhaps have seen winning tennis players address the crowd and thank the opponent. In this case, something different happened. From ESPN:
After the match in Indian Wells, California, Osaka requested to address the crowd, something rarely done by the losing player. She explained exactly why she was so upset by what happened.
"To be honest, I've gotten heckled before, it didn't really bother me," Osaka said as her voice broke. "But [being] heckled here, I watched a video of Venus and Serena [Williams] getting heckled here, and if you've never watched it, you should watch it. I don't know why, but it went into my head, and it got replayed a lot. I'm trying not to cry."
For those who do not know, the crowd at Indian Wells infamously booed the Williams sisters back in 2001, after Venus cited a knee injury as reason to pull out of a semifinal match against Serena. As the cascades of boos rained down, Richard Williams, the stars’ famous father, raised a fist to the sky. It was quite a scene, one that prompted accusations of tennis fan racism in the media and elsewhere. The Williams sisters would go on to boycott Indian Wells for 14 years. Whatever people think of the crowd’s motivations, there was an ugliness to an entire family unit absorbing a full stadium’s scorn. Osaka is insinuating herself into a connection with the incident, a crucible that an older generation’s tennis stars’ found glory on the other side of. But Osaka’s adversity isn’t all that substantial here, even if the media that covers her is terrified to admit as much.
ESPN and other outlets reported that a fan yelled, “Naomi, you suck!” which is a plausible interpretation of what some woman blurts as Kudermetova prepares to serve. Though it was happening during Kudermetova’s service, she didn’t really catch it. As the match’s winner said, “I didn't hear what lady say because I really so focus on my game, on my serve game, I didn't understand what she say.” Osaka, on the other hand, stopped the match over this vague middle-school insult, whining to the judge that the yeller needed to be kicked out. The judge, like the announcers, and Kudermetova, didn’t quite know who yelled what, but those in charge arrived at the conclusion that they’d find and deal with this individual if it happened again. There would be no additional heckle.
Not good enough, apparently. The crowd would be treated to Osaka’s lecture. When an official got the microphone back, he said, “I should tell you that, on behalf of everybody here that, out of about 10,000 people, one person’s voice can’t outweigh 9,999 others. And we love you here.” The crowd cheered Naomi. Osaka put her backpack on as he spoke and scampered off as he was closing the statement.
It’s far from an act of mindreading to say Osaka didn’t want consolation. It was a distraction from the licking of an imaginary wound. Such a message, though well-intentioned, undercuts the noble-victim narrative she’s attempting to craft. Or should I say graft. Osaka, in an era where major institutions are cloyingly, self-consciously tolerant, is tying herself to the experience of those who gate-crashed when tennis wasn’t totally that.
Whatever one thinks of the Williams sisters, they really did break the mold in an insular, upper-class sport at the millennium’s turn. As evidenced by the loud boos at Indian Wells, they actually were controversial within tennis. Osaka is quite indulged by comparison, coddled with “we love you here” after she seizes the microphone in defeat.
Osaka appears in search of a subversion the modern system won’t allow because it embraces performative subversion. In this way, the powers that be have stolen something from the young, making rebellion on major issues a nearly impossible act. The old, terrified of looking out of step, merely validate protests, depriving the youth of the meaning derived from defiance.
Osaka wore the names of Black people shot by police on her masks at the U.S. Open, but nobody important took issue with this. Indeed, she was widely praised for it. She said she did it to “make people start talking,” but it happened at a moment when everyone was. By August 31st of 2020, when she began the mask messaging, every major corporation had already loudly backed BLM and disavowed the Bad Things.
Perhaps her most prominent act of rebellion, one that incurred actual sanction, was an avoidance of post-match press conferences, something she withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon over. Before the French Open, she put out a Twitter post that included the statement:
We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.
[I]f the organizations think they can keep saying, “do press or you’re going to get fined”, and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.
When Osaka returned to do her first press conference in months, reporter Paul Daugherty from the Cincinnati Enquirer had the temerity to ask Osaka how she balances "not being crazy about dealing with us [media]" with needing a media platform for her "outside interests.” This prompt led Osaka to cry and exit the press conference. Her agent put out a statement to the New York Times that referred to Daugherty as “the bully at the Cincinnati Enquirer,” which is just a funny phrase on its face. Yes, that bully from the dying river-city paper, throwing his weight around like the Big Red Machine against some little leaguers.
Osaka’s agent also said the reporter was “the epitome of why player / media relations are so fraught right now,” and claimed, “Everyone on that Zoom will agree that his tone was all wrong and his sole purpose was to intimidate. Really appalling behavior."
This characterization of the interaction was, of course, completely insane, and thus indulged as legitimate by some in the press. Cue Ben Rothenberg, then from the aforementioned NYT:
It’s like he’s describing a shy woodland creature who might skitter away if you whisper too loud. This is extreme deference, but it isn’t respect.
I’ll now take this opportunity to say a) I feel bad for Osaka, who seems legitimately depressed, and b) my sympathy counts for nothing. The former statement is obviously common, but the latter one less so in media. The premise, in not just journalism but all kinds of professional-class settings, is that group sympathy at scale is some magical elixir. Dismissal of grievance is the opposite, a poison that must be viciously opposed. Sometimes, it seems like the greatest taboo in these settings is to reject a fashionable pity party. To say “you’re not a victim” isn’t just considered dickish, but wholesale heresy.
The therapeutic language has been going strong in these spaces, and, to quote one television psychologist, “How’s that working for us?” The Zoomer athletes appear no more happy for the large-scale sensitivity to their pain. We, the media, might just be enablers of unhealthy behavior, most especially when we’re trying to promote “mental health” through celebrity avatars. We eat up nearly every celebration of their narcissism, and encourage solipsism like it’s the path to enlightenment. So we get what we incentivize: Athletes who talk a lot about their sadness in between LARPing as righteous revolutionaries.
And yet I still feel horribly for the athletes, but most of all their non-celebrity generational brethren. They’ve all come of age in a narcissism trap, using devices that were designed to be highly addictive, powerful contraptions that stoke obsessive inward focus. At least old-school television was about other people. The IG scroll is about you, either explicitly or implicitly.
For most people, the self is a road to hell. No man is an island, of course, which is why Facebook sold a world that’s more connected, even while likely adding to its atomization. Connection, true connection, isn’t simply the ability to communicate. It’s about something else.
Years ago, the author Chuck Klosterman remarked on a podcast, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he stopped thinking about himself as much ever since he had a kid. Idle thoughts that once turned inward instead floated off to consideration for another. It was such an existential relief, overall. The author concluded that happiness is inversely correlated with the time you spend thinking about yourself.
That’s a tough conclusion to absorb as someone who runs his own website. I’m a brand, albeit a niche one. My livelihood is a newsletter that bears my name. More than I’d like to admit, I’m thinking about what other people are thinking about me.
And yet Klosterman is correct. I know it in my own life. I’m saved by having a wife and kid, plus family in the area. You don’t necessarily need the same to be happy, but you need something, something preferably in your vicinity. Putting yourself first is a dead end, as is trusting the digitized landscape to approximate community.
I’d also add that, contra the popular messaging on mental health, exposure to adversity is good. That doesn’t mean Simone Biles should have competed while experiencing the gymnastics version of the yips. It does mean that the glorifying of conflict avoidance is probably bad for society.
In their drinking philosophy, Roger Sterling and Don Draper were both wrong. Glib hedonism isn’t a path towards much, and neither is self-pity. Sterling did what came easily and Draper hid inside himself. They represent men of a bygone era, guys who drowned in bottles long before they died. Now, as then, happiness in America is sold as attainable through simple self-reward. The truth is, however, despite all the popular messaging, happiness is an ephemeral phantom, seldom if ever held. Fulfillment is attainable, though, and I believe younger people want it because yes, even the atomized Zoomers are human. Unfortunately, it seems, small-scale selflessness has no salesman.