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Sport and Competition

How Athlete Podcasts Are Showcasing Black Male Strength and Vulnerability

A new wave of Black male "entrepodneurs" are shaking up masculinity narratives.

Key points

  • Rates of suicide and mental health burdens have sharply risen in recent years among Black men.
  • Podcasts are offering a new, controlled space for explicit discussions of mental wellness.
  • Mental health has historically been highly stigmatized among Black men.
  • Journalism is predominated by white individuals; Black "entrepodneurs" may be poised to change that.

Your new therapist is in. And he’s a Black professional athlete. And a podcaster.

He’s not actually a certified therapist, though. Nor is he—not in the traditional sense at least—what you might deem a podcaster. His segments are introduced through booming hip-hop snares rather than spacey lo-fi or 80’s alt-rock. His sets run the gamut between barbershops, made famous by LeBron James’ HBO series "The Shop," down to front porches and home office studios meant to pass off as real studios.

Within most episodes, there’s at some point a deep, sharp tension: A mutual mournfulness and bitterness about failing to meet expectations sets in. It clashes with the Herculean, über-macho, and racialized persona that they wittingly, and sometimes unwittingly, telegraphed to the public in the prime of their careers. The musclebound podcaster and their guest—usually another Black athlete—then begin to give and take advice that’s uniquely, if not inadvertently, oriented toward psychological healing.

The ground here is very fertile, but not easy to till. The suicide rate among Black individuals has greatly accelerated in the last few years, with the rates among Black males 10 to 19 years old increasing by 60 percent, an especially staggering increase. Presently, Black men commit suicide at a rate that’s over three times higher than that of Black women. Limited educational and economic opportunity, coupled with ongoing exposure to racism (and the endless permutations of it), forge and entrench suicidality—and depression, anxiety, and trauma more generally—in these populations.

Black males are a demographic that researchers and American public health officials have deeply struggled to understand and effectively engage on nearly every major health issue—cancer, HIV/AIDs, diabetes, and hypertension being just some. When it comes to mental illness, we've proven especially incapable of addressing the structural challenges that cultivate depressive symptoms in Black males and have been unsurprisingly ineffective at communicating ways to manage or cope with these symptoms. Along these lines, mental illness also tends to be heavily stigmatized among Black men, owing in no small part to their incessant but untenable need to meet the hyper-masculine expectations typically foisted on them by the public and media.

In the podcast, the host doesn’t reveal these frictions so naturally. It usually isn’t until midway through the podcast before their riffing on the tricks of the trade, fame, victory, sex, and money comes crashing back to Earth. It’s here that testosterone-fueled bravado is replaced by tales of betrayal, failure, racism—from team management, peers, and fanbases—and missed connections of a professional, personal, and sometimes romantic variety. They’re sober, lucid, and self-reflective, no longer one-track, colliding machines. Because of who they are, it's easy for discussions by Black men on mental health to be dismissed as empty locker-room chatter and "sh*t talking" rather than as structured and purposeful introspection.

In the last three years, a number of homegrown, Black athlete-led podcasts have sprouted up, continuing to rub a magic eraser along that line that separates professional and amateur journalism, and celebrity and layperson, as Derek Jeter’s The Players' Tribune began to do when it launched a decade ago. To the ire of some sports journalism vets, athletes are carving out an inimitable space in the Internet’s crowded podcast ecology—one formed and informed by them.

Roughly 67 percent of journalists in the U.S. are white, and in a Pew survey conducted in 2022, just over half of U.S. journalists polled said their news organizations did not have racial or ethnic diversity. The strength of the Black “entrepodneur” niche, as evidenced by growing viewership and lucrative advertiser tie-ins, suggests change may be afoot—at least in terms of the ways that news and stories from traditional journalists are privileged—as audiences shift farther away from old-school reporting toward “stories” that are readily representative of their logic, fears, and aspirations, latching onto the first-hand perspectives of Black athletes. Comment sections on some of the podcast videos capture the awe of fans as they shift from a focus on athletes’ super-human heroics on the field or court to the stresses—big and seemingly small—that characterize their everyday lives.

To this end, as the Black athlete entrepodneur field has grown, the barrier to entry to popular media, particularly for Black men, has also lowered, as networks like ESPN and Fox Sports have doubled down on hires of formerly "unhireable" Black commentators. Far from connoting a simultaneous drop in production value and journalistic substance, though, this new wave of Black contributors has been lauded for their authenticity in speaking on the nuances of sports and how much closer they bring the humanistic totality of Black athletes—often painted with a very narrow brush—to fans.

This is especially true when they wade into the racial complexities of being a Black athlete. As the suppression of on-field activism following George Floyd’s murder showed, Black athletes are seen by many as a fungible vessel of entertainment, and this is a rebuke they're expected to gracefully take and concede to.

As many a Nike tagline goes, the desire to athletically compete is as much about mental tenacity and resilience as physical ability, the capacity to absorb psychological pain like one absorbs a tackle and runs right back to the huddle. That said, wrist sprains and bone fractures can keep athletes off the field for weeks at a time—but mental illness, an injury by any other name, rarely commands the same kind of compassion in the sports world.

At best, mental illness among Black athletes has had a distinctive “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of valence, unless it can be packaged and sold. Take former boxing heavyweight Mike Tyson, host of Hotboxin' with Mike Tyson, whose history of trauma—exposure to poverty, sexual abuse, and domestic violence as a child—has been valorized and commodified, arguably enabling Tyson's descent into years of drug use and assault.

And consider the saga of Naomi Osaki, a half-Black, half-Japanese tennis superstar who was ridiculed by both members of the media and some of her peers after withdrawing from the 2021 French Open due to ongoing bouts of depression. Hers is a substantial case of widespread indifference to athletes' mental health both owing to consideration of her race as well as her gender.

For many in the public, Osaka's primary failure was arguably her inability to more effectively embody the “masculine” trope associated with Black women, one that enables the heavy fetishization and policing of their bodies. Along these lines, it could be said that Black athletes lie at the intersection of a rather kinetic form of trauma bonding, experiencing disorienting ebbs and flows in public and media affection over their athletic triumphs and shortcomings. But the podcast world’s infusion of self-directed narratives may be changing this.

In 2019, the SHOWTIME network bet big on the burgeoning entrepodneur movement, hiring former NBA players, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, for All The Smoke, who got the late Kobe Bryant’s last in-depth interview, later bringing NBA champion Kevin Garnett’s KG Certified to their lineup. Since then, other NBA athletes ranging from former and current NBA all-stars like Draymond Green, Paul George, and Gilbert Arenas have initiated their own YouTube or Spotify podcasts to large audiences. NFL athletes—Shannon Sharpe, Cam Newton, Brandon Marshall, and members of The Pivot, Ryan Clark, Fred Taylor, and Channing Crowder—have also made similarly pronounced impressions with their podcasts in a relatively short period.

On an episode of a podcast from Brandon Marshall, who was among the first prominent NFL players to discuss his borderline personality disorder (before most of us probably knew what that was), Hall of Famer and current coach of the University of Colorado football team, Deion Sanders discussed a past suicide attempt. That might be otherwise hard to fathom for an athlete who, in addition to winning multiple Super Bowls and having a standout career in the NFL and MLB, seems to many to be about the most confident and self-assured person in the world. Generational talent Michael Vick, a former NFL quarterback convicted and imprisoned for dog-fighting who spent years seeking vindication through old-school media, shared a similar story with Hall of Fame tight-end Sharpe.

While content like this has commonly ended up in athletes’ memoirs years after their retirement, its naked, timely presence in podcasts marks a huge shift in how Black men convey their darkest moments to an easily accessible public on channels like YouTube. They need it, and as evidenced by the explosion of this subgenre, their audiences want it, even if it challenges their ideas of Black masculinity and masculinity more general. For Black athletes, this means the ball isn't just in their court. They're in the lead.

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