Editorial: mental health awareness in sports

Illustration by Raya Deussen

Former quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts Andrew Luck stunned the professional sports world when he announced his retirement from the National Football League (NFL) at just 29 years old. Luck was once an upcoming star in the league but battled a variety of shoulder and head injuries throughout his seven-year career. When Luck announced that he was retiring, he did not credit injuries but instead emotionally attributed it to a loss of joy in both himself and the game. He announced that he needed to choose himself, his health and his family over football. 

The most surprising factor following his retirement was the overwhelmingly positive reaction. Apart from vulgar boos prior to his press conference, fans primarily thanked him and other professional athletes applauded him for his courage. In a sport where toughness, physical dedication and a generally machismo culture is the norm, this reaction shows the promising growth of mental health awareness in professional sports.

This is further proven through actions made by athletes in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In 2016, Cleveland Cavaliers center and power forward Kevin Love sparked a league-wide conversation when he released an article through the Players’ Tribune discussing his own mental illness in 2018. He was also met with extreme support, and he encouraged other players to step forward and share their story. Most importantly, Love and players like him caused the NBA to expand its mental health program. It is now required that each team have a licensed psychologist on their payroll.

Professional athletes were able to stimulate real change in sports by utilizing their individual platforms. Kevin Love and Andrew Luck secured million-dollar contracts and extensive fan bases when they shared their stories. Each player had the agency and security through their professional and financial status to demand and create change. 

But college athletes do not have that agency. In fact, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is determined to give players as little power as possible. Athletes are not compensated despite the significant amount of revenue they create for their colleges. This financial exploitation allows for colleges and the NCAA to define and control an athlete’s image on a national scale. Therefore, it is more difficult for student-athletes to create an effective platform to destigmatize mental health in athletics. 

This does not mean that the NCAA ignores or undermines the importance of developing strong mental health programs for student-athletes. It recognizes that what college athletes do can negatively impact their health and does create avenues for them to get help. The NCAA Sport Science Institute has actually created a Mental Health Task Force in charge of providing athletes with outlets and medical help.

 However, college athletes are still almost 20 percent less likely than other college students to seek out medical help according to a study by Professors Laura Sudano and Christopher Miles of Wake Forest University. Unfortunately, this makes sense. Division I athletes do not have the agency to make decisions that benefit their mental health. Since college athletes are so indebted to the NCAA and the program they are playing for, athletes could easily be afraid to come forward for fear of getting kicked off the team or damaging their professional prospects. 

Lewis & Clark and other Division III schools are less likely to face these obstacles because the athletes are far more integrated into the life of non-athletes and have similar access to confidential mental health assistance. Furthermore, LC is far less reliant on athletics for revenue and, therefore, athletes do not have to worry about financial exploitation and national vilification. 

In order to improve mental health awareness in college, simply developing programs is not enough. NCAA college athletics must loosen its stronghold on student athletes and empower them to create their own platforms to get help without fear of consequence.

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