The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Mental Health Crisis of College Athletics

sad football player made out origami paper

The campus is saddened to learn of the death of Harpur College student Robert Martin.
—Harpur College

“We are grateful that Lauren has been part of our JMU Athletics community and will always consider her to be a Duke.”
—Duke University

“The Wisconsin Athletics community is heartbroken by the unexpected passing of Sarah Shulze.”
—University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Northern Michigan student-athletes, coaches and staff are grieving after the passing of track and field team member Jayden Hill.”
—Northern Michigan University

“It is with great sadness that we report that Katie Meyer, a senior majoring in International Relations and minoring in History, a Resident Assistant, and a team captain and goalkeeper on the Stanford Women’s Soccer Team, has passed away.”
—Stanford University

Within just two months of 2022, Five NCAA athletes committed suicide. The statements released by their respective schools show a devastating repetition—acknowledgment, resources, the next game will be canceled or postponed. This endemic showed just a glimpse of a problem that has existed just as long as sports have. 

While athletics are often an escape from the stress of everyday life, as athletes climb the ranks in their sport, the sport itself becomes the stressor. For college athletes, balancing life, school, and high-level sports is a major challenge. Athletes weigh under the performance pressure of qualifying for scholarships and awards. As media comes into play, athletes have to compete with a positive public perception and social celebrity, as well as the negativity that comes when they don’t perform well.

The issue of mental health in athletics has persisted for so long that beyond having an unofficial format for press releases when college athletes take their own lives, the plot line has been in countless forms of media. For instance, the 1993 film The Program follows many of these challenges. Athletes in the film struggle with academics, steroid use, alcohol abuse, performance pressure, the media, suicidal ideation, and more. 

The star quarterback in the movie, Joe Kane, was on a campaign towards the Heisman Trophy. Kane struggled under the pressure of the media, his coach, and the fans. One scene shows Joe visibly uncomfortable in a media interview. In response to a question about his nerves in relation to a big upcoming game, he starts to give an honest answer, “I mean you try to block it out, but it’s basically impossible, you know. I mean everybody seems to be talkin’ about it-” Kane is cut off by the reporter who asks him to give a different response. He ends up saying, “Well to tell you the truth, Lynn, I hadn’t really thought about it.”

The media perpetuates an idea of athletes as some kind of super-human. It commands an even match between their physical and mental toughness. Any form of nervousness or stress ruins the facade of someone unwaveringly confident in their ability to win. However, this image is not reality. Performance pressure is stressful and losing games when a team is counting on you is scary. The lack of honest emotion present in media sends the message to younger athletes that stress and fear are not something you can vocalize. This results in not communicating with teammates and coaches, not vocalizing anxieties, and not asking for help when it’s needed.

In Ted Lasso, the popular original series released by Apple TV+, we follow the hot-shot soccer player Jamie Tartt as he attempts to succeed in his sport while wrestling with his own inner demons. Throughout the three seasons, it is revealed that his abusive father painted an image in his head of needing to be “tough” and be the one scoring all the goals. In the first season, Jamie is selfish, refusing to pass the ball even when it could benefit the play and getting angry when the coaches introduce another player that threatens his title as star player.

Jamie ends up leaving the team and joining a celebrity reality TV show. This action showed Jamie destroying his relationship with the sport he loved because he couldn’t handle the way it was intertwined with his father’s perception and therein his desire to be perfect. The reality television show acted as a comedic plot point but showed the hyper-fixation elite athletes can develop with the press and their own image. 

Throughout the seasons, Jamie has to grapple with his relationship with his father and repair the relationships he broke over the years. While his growth is substantial, the writers never let his development be perfectly linear.  While normally, his struggles are expressed in anger or pompousness, an episode in season three showed Jamie at practice one day completely unwilling to accept personal praise and eventually breaking down in tears in the locker room.

Through sobs, Jamie says, “I’m just tired but I can’t sleep, and I can’t eat, and I wash my hair but I don’t use any conditioner anymore because like what’s the fucking point?” 

Something these media portrayals consistently leave out is representation of female athletes. The problem persists in general sports media as well, but the fictional media presence is nonexistent. In the endemic of 2022, four out of the five athletes were women. The only well-known media representation of women in sports-related mental health challenges is in the 2020 documentary The Weight of Gold, which profiles many athletes’ mental health surrounding the Olympic games.

The purposeful omission in the media of mental health in women’s athletics is particularly detrimental. Elite sports remain a field dominated in number by male athletes. Female athletes often need to work harder to compete for media coverage, sponsorships, and fame. In a space where female athletes already have to fight against the notion of being considered “weaker” or less athletic, seeking support for mental health could be the last action they consider. This “never say no to an opportunity” mindset can overload the sport-life balance of female athletes, resulting in consequences to their mental health. Until female athletes are on an even playing field in the eyes of the media and public, female athletes will continue to force themselves through unbalanced and unsustainable pursuits to the same level of notability as their male counterparts.

The risk of mental health consequences can also be exacerbated when athletes are pursuing certain awards or recognitions within their sport. Like with Joe Kane in The Program, highly publicized awards can create another layer of sports-related stress.

The star athlete at Boston University is Macklin Celebrini, a seventeen-year-old in his campaign season for the Hobey Baker Award. He is the prospective number-one NHL draft pick for this August. Due to the nature of college hockey, he is often playing against athletes in their early to mid-twenties. His Hobey Baker and NHL Draft predicted success has created a large media coverage that follows every development in his game. He is also managing all this while enrolled in college.

Perhaps Macklin Celebrini is managing the stress and balance perfectly fine, but maybe he won’t be in five months when the draft rolls around, or maybe the next person in his footsteps will fall under the pressure.

The problem is also expanding to high school students; every year a new round of high school seniors tries to use their athletic abilities to receive a scholarship that will help finance their college education. For them, every game matters. In addition, the full-day high school schedule has these teenagers spending six hours in class, several in practice, and several catching up on homework and work they missed during tournaments and games. When do they sleep, eat, hang out with friends? Many high schools have a GPA requirement for participation in athletics programs. This constant dual pressure between sports and academics while knowing that both of them have a chance of affecting their future can be completely overwhelming. 

No matter how hard they try, the nonprofits and charities popping up to aid athletes’ mental health will not repair the structure that breeds the problem. No media campaign, fundraiser, or news story will untwine the deeply ingrained weight athletics hold in our society and the pressure that comes along with it.

As long as we maintain the grueling performance pressure, reputational analysis, and negative traditions of athletics, mental health problems will persist. How many athletes need to suffer before we repair the system?

Shelby Rose Long is a student at Boston University studying journalism.

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