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Hating Simone Biles Is a You Problem

If you care this much about the personal decisions of an athlete, you really need to go outside and touch some grass.

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Anyone who has played any sport at basically any level has heard some variation of the mantra “never quit.”

What most actual athletes know is that this isn’t really an absolute rule. A good coach will tell you never to quit, yes, but they’ll also know it’s incredibly important to not push yourself past the point where continuing to try to perform would hurt you down the line. Professional athletes quit all the time. Baseball players, for instance, are put on the injury list approximately every five minutes, disappear for a full year to get elbow surgery, and then sometimes play entire series of games in a different league before rejoining their actual team. This is completely fine and normal.

Quitting is in the news right now because two of the most exciting and successful female athletes in the world decided to do it. Back in June, Naomi Osaka, the second ranked women in the world in tennis, withdrew from the French Open, citing the pressure put on her mental health, and then declined to play Wimbledon, a period of absence that likely contributed to her 3rd-round defeat in the Tokyo Olympics. Then, yesterday, Simone Biles, the best gymnast in the world, the centerpiece of a dominant United States gymnastics team, and survivor of brutal sexual abuse and neglect by the administration of said team, decided to withdraw from multiple events, citing her mental health.

As you likely already know, this has sent a subsection of the media into an absolute frenzy. Osaka and Biles’ citing their mental health concerns, the fact that they are both black women, and their prominence in their respective sports has created a perfect storm for a certain kind of reactionary. These decisions—which, in the context of sports, should really be viewed as injury management in young athletes who have careers and lives to consider—have become Culture Wars, and Identity Politics, and, in some particularly deranged circumstances, National Security. Let’s take a quick look at what they’re saying.

Here is now-bearded Senate Candidate and venture capitalist J.D. Vance weighing in on “heroism” and “weakness” on Fox News.

Vance’s argument here is a good distillation of the key points of what I’ll refer to as the shithead take on this. (Vance is great for that sort of thing in general). Shitheads are mad that 1. Biles quit, and 2. that many people in the media and public figures have praised Biles for quitting.

To go a bit further, shitheads like this are generally opposed to 1. seeing athletes or entertainers prioritize their own well-being over the labor they perform, and 2. people recognizing mental health injuries to be just as impairing as physical ones. These general thought processes have also become wrapped up in the familiar, tired, and false culture war hallmarks that millennials are soft and weak, etc. If you go far enough down this rabbit hole, you can arrive at this take:

There are myriad ways to debunk this absurdly stupid argument, all of which you can view by simply looking at the replies and quote tweets of that post, but we’re not really going to focus on them because Zaid Jilani is one of the most vile, idiotic, and insignificant recurring characters in the drama of Bad Twitter, and my editor specifically told me not to make this blog about his post. Still, take a minute here and laugh at the stupid guy. Great.

The point is that if you care this much about the personal decisions of Naomi Osaka or Simone Biles or any athlete, really, you need to go outside and touch some grass. Maybe even play a sport on it yourself. It’s absolutely worth caring about what these two women and many other professional athletes go through on an empathetic level, but if you see their injury management decisions as civilization-ending threats, the problem might be that you’re an asshole.

When you consider that there’s no way Biles or Osaka would have gotten to the point they’re at without superhuman levels of mental fortitude, this argument looks even stupider. The mentally weak don’t make it to the top. (If you want an example from tennis, for instance, look at Nick Kyrgios, whose career mediocrity appears to be largely due to his inability to cope with the tour’s mental and emotional demands.)

It’s also worth noting that other professional athletes, including ones praised for their mental “toughness,” recognize what Biles and Osaka are experiencing. “I don’t know if I could’ve survived in this Twitter [era], where you don’t have the privacy that you’d want and what seems to be very innocent can always be misinterpreted,” Michael Jordan told a podcast last year. Jordan explicitly said that this is why he doesn’t do many interviews anymore, because being in the spotlight sucks. Both Biles and Osaka are in the spotlight constantly. Biles, for instance, has been expected to push her body to its physical limits under some of the most abusive circumstances imaginable for nearly her entire adolescent and young adult life, and is then thrust into one of the most intense media spotlights possible once every four years and is expected to perform physical feats that are literally impossible for any other human being on the planet besides her. The move I’m referring to here, the Yurchenko double pike, has only been performed in a competition by Biles, and is so dangerous that the International Gymnastics Federation has handicapped scoring on it. If she had beefed that move (or anything else) in practice and tweaked something, most people wouldn’t think twice about her skipping events. If you’re hurt, you’re hurt. Soccer players regularly pull a hamstring during warmups and then miss half a season and no one tells them they’re going to cause a nuclear war.

What people can’t accept is that the mental pressures Biles experiences on a regular basis can be just as dangerous as the physical ones she puts herself through in the gym. Fortunately, it doesn’t take an Olympic physique and fortitude to grasp this concept—just a basic understanding of empathy. It’s telling how many people have jumped at the chance to tell us they’re not up to that task.