Today’s guest columnist is Bill Squadron, assistant professor of Sport Management at Elon University and senior adviser to the AI-driven sports technology company Pramana Labs.
Naomi Osaka’s recent withdrawal from the French Open underscored the mental health issues experienced by many athletes. Her courage in discussing those concerns, along with that shown by other stars like Michael Phelps and Kevin Love, have helped many athletes be more open about mental health challenges and many sports organizations be more sensitive and supportive in addressing them.
It’s become clear that the college sports world needs to strengthen its efforts to provide services in this area. At the recent symposium on “Perspectives on College Athletics” hosted by Elon University, student-athletes identified mental health as something on which athletic departments nationwide should focus greater attention.
The Elon symposium had panels of experts, administrators and coaches discussing the myriad problems facing college sports, as well as student-athletes offering their perspectives on matters ranging from recruiting to name, image and likeness opportunities to interactions with coaches.
While the college sports issues that command the most attention tend to be the big-money items like NIL and expanding the FBS playoffs, the students singled out mental health as their priority.
Emma Seif, a senior lacrosse player at Wofford College, praised her school’s efforts in addressing mental health issues but noted the significant pressures placed on student-athletes. “Going into college is already one big transition, and the intensity and level of play is really hard to get used to, and also the pressure you put on yourself,” Seif said. “Mental health has been talked about a lot more recently, but it’s not getting as much [focus] as it should.”
Seif makes an important point—studies have shown that college students generally have been struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns in increasing numbers. A recent American Council on Education survey found that 72% of colleges reported increasing their mental health spending in the last three years.
Student-athletes face the challenges that all students must deal with, plus additional pressures. And being on a team often deters them from speaking up. “A lot of people are going through a lot of stuff, and they don’t say anything,” observed one of the panelists, former Averett University football player Devin Merritt. “Especially when you’re a part of a team, like my football team, you’ve got to be the tough guy, and you can’t talk about things.”
In the last few years, terrible tragedies like the suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski have shone a light on what is often a hidden, lurking problem. The NCAA has stepped up its efforts in this area, with the organization’s Sports Science Institute publishing Mental Health Best Practices for schools to follow.
Another panelist, University of North Carolina freshman football player Christopher Holliday, commended the availability of a sports psychologist for his team, but he noted that “the time and the commitment and the grind that you have to put in, day-in and day-out—it’s an all-year thing, and some people don’t realize that when they’re being recruited.”
The clear message that emerged from the Elon discussion was that college administrators, coaches and others have made efforts to be more aware and supportive.
Still, the scope of the problem requires even greater focus and resources.
The numbers are striking. One study suggests that 33% of all college students have at least one mental health challenge, while 30% of that group seek assistance. But among student-athletes with a mental health problem, only 10% ask for help.
This suggests schools and athletic departments must be more vigilant and take more initiative in discussing mental health issues and creating an environment where student-athletes are comfortable coming forward to receive assistance.
This may require increased spending—anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars depending on the program’s size—for additional counselors, sports psychologists and training for coaches and administrators.
The investment in those additional resources will clearly see a return in the well-being and productivity of a school’s student-athletes. One analysis showed a Power 5 program with six video coordinators and two sports psychologists. Both common sense and a reasonable commitment to health and safety would support a more balanced ratio.
The student-athletes themselves are telling us how critical this expenditure is.
“I’ve heard stories around the country of student-athletes whose teammates have noticed something,” said Natalie Cummins, an Elon senior volleyball player. “And they’ve gone to their trainer and then nothing happened after that.”
She said Elon has embraced mental health as a core value of its athletic program. But overall, she said, “If I could change one thing I would want to see more people advocating for mental health—and telling those football players, ‘It’s okay if you’re not tough all the time. You’re still a human being,’ and giving them ways to navigate these issues, and not just sweep it under the rug.”
First and foremost, it makes consummate sense to listen to the student-athletes themselves.
Squadron has spent several decades in the sports media and technology industry, including as co-founder and CEO of Sportvision, president of Bloomberg Sports and special counsel to Genius Sports.