The news of DJ Carton’s decision to step away from the Ohio State basketball program came in waves, a pair of them in quick succession.
At 9:05 p.m. on Thursday, a team spokesman released a relatively vague statement announcing the freshman point guard “will be taking some time away to deal with personal matters.”
Thirteen minutes later, Carton dropped a bombshell that nobody forced him to drop. He made himself vulnerable in a way he didn’t need to. He could have been silent, allowing Ohio State’s statement to do the talking, knowing that as a college basketball player he didn’t owe the public anything else. Instead, Carton made the uncommon yet wholly important choice to open up to the world about his intensely personal mental health struggles that required a temporary step back from the sport and his team.
“After talking to my family, teammates, and coaches I have decided it is best at this time to temporarily step away from the Ohio State basketball program,” Carton said in his statement. “In making this decision I felt it was important to be transparent as to why I'm taking this break. I have been suffering with mental health issues for a couple years. I have been through a lot.”
Love my team and Ohio pic.twitter.com/Sjb3C9sZbJ— DJ Carton (@DJCarton) January 31, 2020
A widespread outpouring of support followed, with more than 1,000 people replying to his tweet and more than 700 responses on Instagram. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love publicly offered his assistance, SportsCenter host Sage Steele replied to him, Ohio State football coach Ryan Day followed him on Twitter and many media members with wide-reaching audiences supported him.
Among those who contacted Carton was Mark Titus, a former Ohio State walk-on who gained a following while on the team in the late 2000s and has since become a popular college basketball media figure. He now co-hosts the Titus & Tate podcast with Tate Frazier.
“I did send him a message just kind of letting him know he's not alone,” Titus said Friday. “I don't know what he's going through. That's the tough part. Mental illness or whatever the terminology is is a big blanket, which could be a million different things. It could be stress. It could be actual depression, anxiety. You never know. I didn't want to pry into what's going on. I didn't want to say, ‘Hey, I've been through that too.’ But I reached out to him and just kind of told him, ‘You're not alone.’ His health is much more important than a game of basketball.”
Titus, during an interview with Eleven Warriors less than 24 hours after Carton’s announcement, made sure to separate himself from being a mental health spokesman.
“Everyone is so different and everyone has so many different factors for all their problems, and that's not what I'm trying to do,” he said.
But as a one-time Buckeye who has been open about the mental health struggles he battled for years, he offers a perspective few others can.
As an Ohio State basketball player from 2006-10, Titus developed a reputation as a good-humored walk-on, starting a blog called Club Trillion and filming a video in the Schottenstein Center titled “Mr. Rainmaker” that currently has 600,000 views on YouTube. Inside the locker room, he cut up jokes to try to fit in with his teammates and “appear to be a tough guy.” Inside his own head, though, he now describes himself as having been both suicidal and “about as low as I could possibly be.”
Titus didn’t publicly reveal what he had gone through until a Reddit post in March 2015, when he put it all out there. He said he had battled depression and anxiety for 11 years, going into intense detail about the internal battles he had fought and how he picked up enough positive momentum to feel better.
Unlike Carton, Titus never left the basketball team while at Ohio State for the betterment of his mental health.
“Obviously I played 10 years ago. A lot has changed in those 10 years,” Titus said. “But I certainly could never have done that, and I was a lowly walk-on. I would have put out a press release that I'm stepping away from the team and everybody would have said, ‘Who's that? Who cares?’ So to do that for a guy who's a first-round draft prospect, if not this year then probably next year, and arguably the most talented guy on the team and all that kind of stuff at 19 years old is pretty cool to see. Obviously you wish he wasn't going through any problems and felt the need to do this. But the fact that he is doing it is very, very mature because, like I said, I certainly know I could never have done it, and I don't know too many people that could have.”
Thank you to DJs many supporters pic.twitter.com/pOnsRAJX0v— Jennifer Carton (@meeker1015) February 2, 2020
Carton's decision to temporarily step away from Ohio State's basketball team, thus prioritizing his mental health, remains wildly uncommon – even though the stigmatization of it has waned in recent years. Doing so, fellow point guard CJ Walker said on Saturday, showcased “his bravery and courage.”
What Carton specifically is battling remains unknown. But to Titus, this should be a reminder to fans of the humanity of those on the court.
“I think the lesson to be learned here is just to take pause and just remember that these guys are human beings, which isn't to say that they're above criticism,” Titus said. “If a kid is 0 for his last 47, I don't think it's wrong to be like, 'Hey man, let's make some shots here. Let's get this going a little bit.' They can handle that. I think so oftentimes, and I'm guilty of this too, is you just forget that these are just human beings, and especially very, very young human beings who are going through a lot. Even if you don't have mental health problems.
“I try to make this point all the time when you see teams that are struggling that used to be good – I guess Ohio State would be a great example now. You don't know what guys have something going on in their family. Like, what guy got dumped by his girlfriend of four years right before the game and that's why he played bad? They're not robots. They're 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds that have real-life problems like every other 19-to-20-year old, expect now they're thrown onto the stage and the whole world's watching and they have to go out and deliver. I think it's really easy for people to say, ‘That's what they signed up for. That's part of the deal is if you want to play big-time college sports, you have to take it from strangers on the internet who rip you to shreds.’
“But I don't think that has to be part of the deal. I think we can be better. I think we can all step back and we can be selective with our criticism. And I'm not even speaking to DJ right now. In general, I think that's kind of a lesson to be learned, a reminder that these guys are not invincible. They have problems just like everyone else. Just because they can put a ball through a basket doesn't mean they're invincible.”
On his initial thoughts
Titus: “I'm glad he spoke up, by the way, because my worry was on the heels of Wisconsin, with Kobe King leaving, my mind was like, 'Well, shoot, is he just leaving? Did he transfer? Is he trying to go to the NBA now and he just decided I've had enough?' I didn't necessarily think that was the case, but I definitely thought it was a possibility. I was just kind of confused.”
On Carton’s braveness to leave the team
Titus: “DJ Carton is 10 million times the basketball player I ever was, and that might be generous for myself. I don't mean to liken my situation to his, whatsoever. But I can tell you that having been playing at that level or on the team at that level and just kind of the demands of being a college athlete, I certainly didn't have a spotlight on me, but I still had the time demands. I had my own set of pressure.
“I wasn't going out there in front of millions of people and expected to score 20 points, but there was still pressure on me when I would go to practice. I was like, 'I've got to be good at practice today because I suck and if I don't bring my A-game, I'm going to get killed even more than usual.' I still sort of felt the pressure. From that experience, I can tell you that I can't believe that he did this because I certainly could never have done (it).”
On Carton's decision being uncommon
Titus: “It's kind of a sad place that we've found ourselves in that this is unique. It is cool that DJ is doing this and it's cool that he's getting applauded for it and that kind of stuff, but at the same time it's kind of crazy that the whole reason that people are applauding him and reaching out to him and all that kind of stuff is because this sort of, I wouldn't say unprecedented, but it's definitely something that doesn't happen a lot. Hopefully it happens more. Obviously you don't want guys to have mental health struggles, but hopefully guys understand that ultimately the difference between getting a seven seed in the NCAA tournament and a 10 seed is not worth putting yourself through hell and misery and anything else that you have going on.”
On how common mental health issues are among college basketball players
Titus: “I don't know how many of them it gets to the point where it's debilitating and it's affecting your everyday mood and all that kind of stuff, but it's definitely more common than you'd be led to believe, fans would be led to believe. DJ Carton is not the only guy in college basketball this year that's struggling with this. I guarantee that. If you think about it, think about when you or I were 19 years old, anybody was 19 years old, how much stress you had in your life just trying to pass your class or trying to get that girl you have a crush on to like you back or whatever it was.
“Now you have that in your life plus, if you don't score enough points, you have millions of strangers on the internet that are yelling at you, 'We're not going to make the tournament because of you, you dumbass.' You feel all that pressure, and in the case of DJ, and I don't know exactly how he feels or what he's going through, but like I said he's a big-time recruit and all that kind of stuff. I'm sure he's well aware of his expectations at the next level, that he probably does have an NBA future. And all that stuff can be a lot for guys.”
On this being OK
Titus: “Like I keep saying, I don't want anybody to feel like it's debilitating, but at the same time, I'm sure there are a lot of guys out there, and hopefully this kind of sets a precedent, like if you are feeling overwhelmed by everything, there's 40 games in a season, it's OK to step away and be like, 'I'm going to miss five or six games or whatever it is to get my head straight.' Or even if it's the whole season, who cares? Ultimately if that's what you've got to do, that's what you've got to do.”
On Carton being a beacon to others struggling
Titus: “I think DJ doing it is really, really cool because, again, he's 19 years old and that's an age where you're really vulnerable. People don't want to be vulnerable, especially as an athlete. You just don't want to be vulnerable. That's not in your DNA to put yourself out there and be like, 'This is who I am. This is what I struggle with. I'm not invincible,' and kind of just put yourself out there and open yourself up. That is not something people want to do, and especially 19-year-old athletes. But I think it's the only healthy way. That's the only way you can get better. That's the only way you can improve yourself as a person. Not just with mental health issues, but I think just in general. I think vulnerability is the key to freedom in life in general.
“DJ kind of setting that example, because again it's really easy for old guys like me, I'm getting older, so for me to kind of encourage high school kids or college kids to not feel ashamed about mental health, I'm getting to a point where it's like, 'Yeah, shut up, old man, we get it.' To have a kid like him who's still very much in the thick of everything and come out like that, it's pretty cool to see. I'm glad he's gotten the response he's gotten from people. He seems to have gotten a lot of support. I saw Kevin Love was tweeting about it, said hit me up any time you want and all that kind of stuff. It's just cool. I don't think any one guy is going to solve the stigma or anything, but every little bit helps. And certainly having a guy like DJ Carton, as big a spotlight he has on him, is a good thing.”
On how fans should support Carton
Titus: “I would just encourage people to reach out, let him know it's OK, let him know you support him, let him know you love him. That's really it. That's what was overwhelming to me is when I kind of told my story, I honestly, and people don't believe me when I say this, I honestly didn't think anyone would care. I thought I would tell this story, like five or six people would say, 'Oh, cool, man, that's interesting.' Even then, I didn't think those five or six people would be like, 'Wow, that's so brave of you, that's so whatever.'
“The outpouring of that made me feel so good because you're making yourself vulnerable. You're saying to the world, 'This is who I am. This is what I struggle with. This is my biggest weakness. Will you accept it? Is this OK with you?' So to have the feedback be, 'Yes, it's OK. We love you just the same. We encourage you. We want to help you,' versus whatever the alternative is, it's a big deal. Everything I've seen, everyone seems to be supporting him. It seems to be great. But I think this is just a good opportunity to step back and remember that there are far more important things than whether Ohio State wins 22 or 25 games this year or if it's 20. I think you get so caught up with that and worrying about that kind of stuff. Ultimately they're just guys, they're trying their best.”
On supporting Ohio State
Titus: “I know I'm going on a long rant here, but that's always been my thing with the basketball guys as the program's gone on a roller coaster a little bit the last few years is I don't care about wins and losses. I care about how hard guys are playing. If they care, if you're watching the team and I get the feeling that they actually care and they are giving it their all and they have pride in what they're doing, they could lose every game and I wouldn't care. Because I understand that it's not just as simple as people think it is to win basketball games at the college level. It ultimately doesn't matter. I think that's the lesson to be learned. As long as the guys are actively taking pride in their university and their position on the team, maybe we can back off on if they start losing five or six in a row. As long as they're playing hard, that's pretty much it. I'm kind of all over the place.”
On not rushing Carton back
Titus: “I just hope he figures it out. I hope he doesn't feel rushed back, either. That's the other thing. I think it's easy for people to be encouraging right now. The question is if Ohio State loses our next four in a row and DJ's still sitting out all four of those games, are people still encouraging? Or do they start rumbling, like, 'When are you coming back? We need you.' All that kind of stuff, you know what I mean? It's very, very easy when the announcement's made to be like, 'Hey, man, take your time.'
“When the feet get pressed to the fire, I don't know, I just hope if he decides he needs to take the rest of the year off, I really, really do hope that the response is that he can take as much time as he needs. The message he put out and all the signs, this is not an instance of him quitting on his team. It does feel genuine and it does feel like he should have the freedom to take as much time as he needs, and I certainly hope that the public at large, I hope that's how they treat him.”
On the confidence he has in Carton
Titus: “If he's mature enough to identify this and say, 'I've got to get this done,' I trust he's going to figure it out. The hardest part is the guys that's in denial or the guy that feels shamed or all that kind of stuff that don't want to address their problem and try to figure it out on their own or think that there is a magic solution, like, 'I'm just going to put my head down. I'm going to bottle this up and when I get to the NBA, all my problems will be fixed because I'll have money and fame or whatever.' And then you learn that that doesn't actually solve your problems and it's made worse. For DJ to do that at 19 is pretty impressive.”