Just Mark My Words: Athletes are set 2 return 2 campus & no one is talking about their mental health

Back in the day my mom would oftentimes say “mark my word”. In the online idioms dictionary the phrase means – pay attention and remember what I am saying because it is going to happen. For the last three weeks, the buzz in college sports was pay cuts, furloughs, amended scheduling, and shortened seasons. Last week, and at the start of this week, the discourse in college sports is that it is time to reopen for business!

First conference commissioners and college presidents scheduled meetings to discuss when college athletes might return to campus this summer. Then, late last week coaches and athletic directors started floating dates for when college athletes, namely FB, MBB and maybe WBB – will return to campus. By the end of the Memorial Day weekend, athletic departments had set dates for voluntary workouts and now athletic directors are modeling how many people can fit in a football stadium. It is not surprising after weeks of news about temporary pay reductions, furloughs, and non-revenue sports being cut that the powers that be realized college sports is on the brink of catastrophe akin to the 2008 stock market crash and its time to get back to business!

… but some athletes will return to campus in eight days?

Conversations are abound about the physical health of athletes and the precautions that need to be in place when they return in the midst of the climax of the COVID-19 pandemic (and while the face-to-face shutdown of the rest of higher education remains in effect). Testing, temperatures, social distancing, disinfecting, and more are being discussed, explored and implemented so that the potential physical health consequences of college athletes returning to campus are minimized. Yet, no one is talking about the mental health of college athletes and I mean no one. The only “significant” college coach who has broached the negative mental health implications for college athletes returning from COVID-19 in June was OU’s Lincoln Riley who said a June 1 return was “one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.” Riley also questioned what his college athletes will do when they were not involved in team activities or sleeping?

Not one conference commissioner, athletic director, or Power 5 head coach has verbally demonstrated that their athletic department has taken college athletes mental and behavioral health into account upon their return. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color and the majority of college football and basketball includes people of color? Mental health practitioners from SEC and PAC-12 schools emailed about what they are doing, but their plan didn't include anything specific for athletes of color?

Moreover, consider the reality that no one has talked about:

- What will college athletes do while the rest of campus/their college town is quarantined?

- How will athletes adjust to being away from loved ones physically impacted by COVID-19?

- How will athletes adjust to being away from loved ones financially impacted by COVID-19?

- What is the loss and grief protocol for an athlete who may have lost a loved one to COVID-19?

- How will coaches and athletic departments address students, fans and others who harass minority athletes (health disparities) about COVID-19?

- What concrete strategies will be put into place to deal with athletes fears about COVID-19?

- What concrete strategies will be put into place to deal with athletes miseducation about COVID-19?

Have you heard of any athletic directors or coaches talking about these issues?

Now when there is a serious uptick in the number of arrests for public intoxication or assault, or gun possession, or when the number of college athletes in the transfer portal goes off the charts – or the injuries pile up because their mind really isn’t on football

… just mark my words!

Emmett L. Gill, Jr., PhD, MSW, LMSW

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