Former Miami Dolphins player Ricky Williams speaks during the 2nd Annual Cars and Conversation: UNITY in the commUNITY at the MotorGroup Building in Delray Beach November 12, 2020. Pbp 111320 Ricky Williams Event 03

The Ja Morant saga took a decidedly dark turn this week when the Memphis Grizzlies All-Star, after a series of concerning Instagram posts that read like a goodbye letter, required a welfare check from local police. Once poised to become the face of the NBA, Morant has experienced a fall from grace like few we’ve seen in recent memory, succumbing to self-destructive behaviors that, if he continues down this path, could jeopardize his life and career.

It’s frustrating to see a player as exciting and eminently likable as Ja try and fail to tame his inner demons, though, as fans watching from afar, it’s easy for us to cast judgment, conveniently forgetting that Morant is only human, a flawed 23-year-old struggling to find his place in the world. That doesn’t excuse his behavior, nor should athletes be infantilized, allowing them carte blanche to conduct their lives however they deem fit without fear of consequence. Still, when it comes to Morant, Ricky Williams hasn’t seen much empathy for a troubled young man who needs the support of friends and family now more than ever.

“Checking on someone’s mental health is not waiting until the mental health has gotten to the place where you’re afraid. Checking on someone’s mental health is caring about what’s going on inside of them. And I think through this whole process with Ja Morant, no one’s really cared. All they’ve cared about is that he’s breaking rules or not on the court,” said Williams, a former NFL running back who, himself, led a controversial career, abruptly retiring at 27 following multiple suspensions for failed drug tests. “You don’t know what’s going on inside of this man’s head. The unfortunate thing about most athletes, is people don’t care unless it’s interfering with their ability to compete. And that, in itself, is not good for our soul. When the only value that people see from us is what we can contribute to their entertainment and they don’t really care about who’s on the inside.”

Morant was suspended eight games in March after sharing an Instagram Live video that showed him, while intoxicated, brandishing a gun at a Denver strip club. During his time away from the team, Morant received counseling at a clinic in Florida, though his short stay there, along with his subsequent interview with Jalen Rose, felt like the work of public relations, accelerating his return to the hardwood without giving his mental health a second thought.

“When someone puts on a jersey, they’re no longer a human being. I don’t think that’s good for athletes, because it alienates them from themselves,” said Williams on Thursday’s episode of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. “He’s so young, [playing basketball] is all he knows about himself. If he gets stuck in that definition, he’s not going to be able to find out those other parts about himself.”

When players mess up, we tend to pile on, constructing our own narratives and labels, villainizing young athletes who, when stripped of their wealth and power, are no different than all of us, ordinary people with fears, insecurities and a need for acceptance.

“I don’t think he needs to step away. It’s the offseason. I think he needs to go and understand himself better and hopefully a team—or his team—is willing to embrace what he learns about himself and make him feel seen and appreciated and heard. I don’t think we should baby athletes, but we should care more about them,” said Williams. “I think the teams that are truly successful, long-term, are the ones that care about their players.”

Science tells us the human brain isn’t fully developed until we’re 25, and even then, most of us are still learning the ropes, experiencing life through a rigorous process of trial and error. That doesn’t afford Morant a free pass or soften the impact of his bad decisions. What it does do, however, is remind us how little we know about what Morant’s actually going through or how we would cope if faced with similar adversity.

“Nurturing is about seeing something grow and thrive. And, as an adult, Ja Morant’s a baby. He needs nurturing to help him,” said Williams. “We’ve already started to see these younger athletes are waking up. They’re demanding to be treated more like human beings. I love it. And I like to think that, what I’ve done as an athlete, has been an example that you’re allowed to be a human being.”

[The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz]

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.