Today’s guest columnist is Pat Coyle, founder of Day Off Social, a campaign to protect college athletes and promote mental health.
As the real world and the digital world converge, and as digital profits increase, there has been a simultaneous rise in mental health issues suffered by every segment of society, including athletes. The implications are important for the sports industry at every level, especially in college. If the digital gold rush is putting college athletes at risk of mental health problems, what can we do about it?
Mental health is such a recognizable issue it made Deloitte’s list of key issues in sports to watch in 2022, right after the “blending of the real and digital worlds will accelerate” and “student-athletes exercising more self-determination” as college sports sees “some of its biggest changes ever.”
But there’s a blind spot here. Despite many high-profile efforts to raise awareness and lower stigma, mental health issues continue metastasizing among college athletes and across college campuses. In fact, two Division I athletes recently died by suicide. Deloitte’s predictions accurately identify the key opportunities in sports, but seem to miss the critical relationships between them. Social media may be good for business, but it is an exacerbator of mental health issues. If we’re honest, we might have to admit the influencer marketing business model—and the new “opportunities” to capitalize on athletes’ name, image and likeness—comes with potentially serious psychological consequences.
The recipe for NIL success is simple.
- Brand wants exposure to engaged audiences.
- Brand pays college athlete to post on social media.
- Brand gets exposure, and athlete gets money.
Everybody’s happy, right? Maybe not.
Social media endorsement deals may benefit college athletes financially, but at what cost to their mental health? The influencer marketing model can drive some young people to hyper focus on social media performance, but only a few college athletes will hit big paydays from this exercise. And even they may suffer mentally from it.
So, what if we paid college athletes not to use social media—even if just for one day?
This is the question that led us to create Day Off Social, a simple campaign with a profound purpose. Inspired by NIL, we pay athletes not to use social media, one day at a time. Our funds come from brands, donor collectives and fans who share our desire to support college athletes. Day Off Social helps athletes gain perspective and learn to exercise agency over social media. They are free to spend their days off with family and friends, pursuing hobbies, or volunteering in their local communities. Ultimately the respite from social teaches them to do a cost-benefit analysis before engaging in influencer marketing. We launched our first program with the University of Illinois in March of this year.
Madelyn Crosby, an athlete on the Illini swimming and diving team, had this to say after taking a day off social:
“I took the opportunity to spend time outside and get some things crossed off my to-do list. Often, I feel like social media distracts us from the people and opportunities right in front of us. Taking the day off social media allowed me to be where my feet are and invest more in those around me.”
This testimonial offers a ray of hope and a call to action for everyone involved in the lives of college athletes, including the institutions that educate them, the brands that sponsor them and the fans who cheer for them. We all want to help protect athletes, and now we have a new tool for the job. Happily, several other schools are launching programs during May, which is Mental Health Awareness month.
Social media is a marvel of modern times, and a boon for business that comes with unintended negative consequences. As the metaverse becomes reality, social media will only grow. That’s why it’s crucial that we work to enable young athletes to recognize their choices and exercise their own power to choose how and when they engage on social. By taking days off social, college athletes not only help themselves but set examples that may influence their campus peers, which will help reduce the mental health crisis affecting all college students.
Before founding Day Off Social, Coyle held several jobs in professional and college sports, including a recent stint as a senior associate athletic director at Texas A&M. He currently works in new venture development at Indiana Wesleyan University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.