In May, when the National Basketball Players Association announced Dr. William D. Parham as its first-ever director of mental health and wellness, it came as a surprise to some and an inevitability to others.
The NBA is by many accounts the most progressive professional sports league. It makes sense that its players would be the first in professional sports to create such a position, specifically focused on athlete wellness and mental health.
The league has seen its share of controversies with mental health issues. Among the most high-profile conflicts was the case of Royce White, the 2012 first-round draft pick who battled the league over its handling of his anxiety disorder.
Since White, a lot has happened on the mental health front. This past winter, more players came forward with candid accounts of their mental health challenges: DeMar Rozan discussed his depression, and Kevin Love said he had a panic attack during the season. This built on testimonials from Metta World Peace, Delonte West and Kelly Oubre Jr. The NBA released a PSA on mental wellness featuring a number of players—including Love and DeRozan—in the spring. Then, last week, Nate Robinson said that the NBA gave him his depression.
This is the kind of thing Parham will have to contend with as he finds his way in his new role. He counts players like White and Love as having been instrumental in moving the needle forward—"This is a player-led initiative," he says—but he also credits coaches like Tyronn Lue, who has talked about his anxiety, as having had some sway. "It's not just a player challenge," Parham says. "It's a human challenge—health and wellness. That's played out in every context and venue in America and in the world."
Less than a month into the job, Parham has begun to lay out his ambitious four-part plan to create a comprehensive mental health plan for players:
- Part 1 includes establishing a network of licensed mental health professionals—mostly psychologists, but also some psychiatrists and social workers, all vetted—in each of the cities where the NBA has a franchise.
- Part 2 will be establishing a 24-hour hotline that players can access for mental health issues.
- Part 3 will be an educational campaign targeting players on mental health issues and the resources that are available to them.
- Part 4 will be building relationships with players.
That's a tall order, of course. Parham sees the work as vital to not only player wellness but the league's future success.
"My goal is to change the narrative," he says. "There's a common belief among many that if you start talking about a person's personal challenges, that you're going to open up Pandora's box and all of that stuff will come flooding and compromise the talent that you're seeing. … Flipping the narrative allows me to bring a different lens to the picture.
"If a player is executing outstanding and upwards of Hall of Fame ability, carrying around two or three pieces of baggage, luggage, based on their past, just imagine what they could do if they had a space or a place to drop one or two of those bags. They wouldn't be opening Pandora's box. They’d be unlocking a treasure trove of gifts, talents and genius as ballers and as men."
In addition to his new appointment, Parham works as a professor in the counseling program at Loyola Marymount University, where he's been for years. He has the look of a professor: He is bespectacled and has a low-key demeanor that is accentuated by his soothing voice, which sounds like that of an NPR radio show host.
At Loyola, he teaches on a range of subjects, including multicultural counseling, working with trauma and lifespan development. This is the latest pursuit of a lifetime of studying psychology, particularly among athletes. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in social ecology from the University of California at Irvine and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. "How people think, feel and behave," he says. "That was always intriguing to me."
Over time, he homed in on the intersection between sports "and how the mind, body and spirit worked in that context." But he was also intrigued by something many fans don't necessarily pick up on sitting in the stands or watching on television: "a tremendous cost, emotional and psychological, the higher you go with your elite athleticism."
Parham, a native Angeleno and a lifelong sports fan, was never an elite athletic talent; he didn't play professional organized sports, though he enjoys pickup basketball and martial arts. But he has worked with the NFL, MLS, MLB, elite gymnasts, swimmers and volleyball players, as well as the Los Angeles Lakers and the UCLA Bruins.
In his clinical and academic work, he has focused on the contexts that shape individual psychology. He has examined the role of Japanese internment on individuals and the effects of growing up in the segregated South. It's this kind of multilayered, historical thinking that he hopes to bring to his work with the NBPA.
"You can't understand a bigger picture of athletics without looking at race and social class in America, across sports," he says, adding: "They're topics that provide context for understanding a deeper, richer, bigger picture of a situation."
This expertise is crucial given the tumultuous political climate. Donald Trump's presidency and other contemporary issues, like high-profile killings of black people at the hands of police, have sparked a new generation of player activism. And it is this kind of macro news—mixed with the inherently competitive nature of elite basketball—that can have an impact on the psyche of the individual player.
The context of gender also has an effect, Parham notes. "Men in society are invited to pack everything up and tough it up. Be a man, be tall," he says. "That's code for 'keep everything packed inside.'"
This was one of the difficulties for Love before he found professional help for his panic attacks: Just because a player can nail three-point shots in high-pressure games doesn't mean they are not doing so in spite of significant trauma.
It feels like an obvious point, but it inverts the thinking that most players could likely benefit from treatment or therapy rather than just a handful who may be publicly disclosing their battles. Just because a player is successful doesn't mean he is immune to a mental health challenge. There can be "a cost involved in embracing the game, embracing the culture of sport, learning about yourself, discovering your talents and genius as a baller," he says. "All of that is quite alluring, but the price of the ticket is to keep a lot of those things packed."
He sees psychological well-being as a road to empowerment.
"One of my several mantras I live by is that people don't really care how much you know until they know how much you care," Parham says. "I want the players to know I care. And that relational capital is a foundation of getting things to work. I can put systems into place. The question isn't putting the system in place. It's having people access the system that's there for their benefit."
Parham seems ready to embrace these challenges. There's a benefit to improving the mental health in the NBA. Doing so can benefit teams, owners and fans, perhaps for different reasons.
"Players perform better," Parham says of those who feel psychologically supported. "And what happens when a bunch of players play better? More tickets, more wins ultimately. But the health and wellness of a player is sacred."