A day in the life of a college student is difficult in 2019, especially in the age of social media where cyberbullying is a constant threat to a person’s psyche. When it comes to student-athletes, the rigors are difficult to put into words.
A typical day in the life of a college football player involves handling a full-course load, regular practices, press conferences and of course the actual games. Throughout each week of the college football season, these student-athletes have to deal with a lot of external forces, especially on social media and those frustrations have been voiced to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.
“At every meeting, our student-athletes themselves ask to discuss issues around mental health.” Sankey said during his opening statement on Monday at SEC Media Days, “They share their stories, the stories of their colleagues, both those on their team, those within the conference, and those outside the conference.”
Sankey also mentioned how sports betting becoming the norm could correlate to the mental health of student-athletes, especially when it comes to prop bets. Imagine how much scrutiny players get on a regular basis get when there’s a bad beat on over/under point totals. That could be amplified times a hundred when it comes to bets on specific things like total passing yards for Joe Burrow against Alabama. These players get a lot of flack for losing ballgames already and that will likely weigh a lot on any student-athlete long after the game is finished.
“We’re seeing trends in the mental health area that should cause us all to pause before these ideas around specific event betting within college sports are allowed to take place.” Sankey said, “And I’m talking about, for example, whether a field goal is made or missed, whether a three-point try is successful. Is a pitched ball a strike or a ball. That pause should happen before any of these types of activities take place because if you were part of a student-athlete advisory committee meeting in the SEC ten years ago, you would have commonly discussed campus parking issues, and answering the question, why do I have to return my textbooks at the end of the semester.”
Sankey started the important discussion over the next four days about the mental health of both current and future student-athletes. Several of the head coaches kept the proverbial ball rolling.
One of the first coaches to talk about the current situation was Florida’s Dan Mullen and mentioned the number of pressures that are on them.
“You know, there are guys that on a Saturday, a lot of people come and watch them play, and a lot of people, you know, think, boy, these guys are these celebrity football stars,” Mullen said on Monday at the main hall, “Monday morning they still got to go to class with everybody else. They still got to make sure they’re turning in their papers, getting their assignments done, get in the classroom and complete their degree and continue to work that way.
“So there are those pressures that come from them. Not just the time responsibilities and the physical strain of playing football, but the emotional responsibilities of the pressure, be it 19 years old and having everybody really critique your performance. And then just that maturity. I mean, college is such a big maturing time for young people. You are 18 to 22 years old and how you learn about yourself, find out about yourself. A lot of guys it’s the first time ever being away from home. You’re growing and finding out about yourself, and a lot of these guys are having to do it under a spotlight with a lot of people watching them and critiquing everything they do.”
Mullen also mentioned how important the role of the head coach is in not only developing talent on the field but also preparing them for a future that might not involve the gridiron. “Our ultimate responsibility for me as the head coach is to make sure, when these guys walk out the door, that they’re prepared for whatever the world is going to throw at them.” Mullen mentioned, “I think everybody gets caught up in the 1 percent that goes on to play professional football. But there’s a lot of guys in our program that have a whole life ahead of them when they go and leave, and we have to make sure they are prepared for whatever life is going through with them.”
Another big deal that coaches have to deal with is the fact that the modern college football player has their smartphone with them at all times and will take up a lot of their attention. Over the last few seasons, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron has talked about “blocking out the noise” ad nauseum and Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke mentioned how that needs to be a priority for coaches in 2019 and beyond to make them into better people.
“These guys have grown up on their cell phones, and there’s a huge level of anxiety in guys getting their self-worth looking at that cell phone and how many likes they get and things like that.” Luke said on Tuesday, “So I think developing the whole athlete and taking the steps to hire some extra people in the mental health area, I think is very important. It’s important not only developing them as players but also off the field and developing the whole person.”
While most head coaches deal with their players in different ways, in the case of Georgia’s Kirby Smart, he mentioned that there are staff members on campus that are qualified to help with that on a regular basis.
“I certainly think it’s beginning to show itself more and more in college football. And if you polled the coaches, it happens more and more where you’re dealing with a kid that’s really tough on you to deal with, you have to have professionals within your department, which we do, at the University of Georgia.” Smart mentioned during his time at the podium, “They do a tremendous staff. Our medical staff, Ron Courson, handles all of those mental health issues. You can’t do enough to help the young men be successful, and we want to be able to give back to them that way.”
One of the more poignant answers came from Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher dived deep into all things mental health and what he’s done to provide the Aggies the help that they need at all times.
“I have always been a part of that. I learned it a long time ago. We have sport psychologists, regular psychologists. We have everything in place.” Fisher said on Tuesday, “We have coaches, people come in and learn it, organize, how to structure, to deal with everything possible. That’s a huge part of our financial budget.
“I think that’s a big part of programs. I think those are the kind of programs in place that people who don’t have resources really struggle, and I think it hurts college kids. I think that’s always been a huge part of my development of players, is the psychological development, how they handle pressures, deal with issues, deal with all that stuff, different people to talk, from pastors, sports psychologists, psychologists, all that stuff.”
“My big thing on it, when do they ever get a break? When does a kid now ever get to be a kid? When is he allowed to make a mistake without somebody wanting to kick him out, throw him out, or whatever? They’re under pressure. When do they ever get to unwind? It’s hard. You have to create things within your program and team events and things for those for guys just to have fun and quit worrying about competing and what Twitter, the 10,000 followers they got, which they worry about what they think about it more than their mom, dad, and coach. It’s crazy. It’s a big part of what we do.”
After the coaches wrapped up their time with the media, the players had a chance to answer questions that varied from the transfer portal to who had the best shoe game on the roster. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm mentioned that Smart was always available to talk to about anything at any time of day, but also discussed how he likes to unwind and unplug from the stresses of everyday life and for him, it’s hunting and fishing.
“There’s a lot of things going around and you have to do a ton of things as a student-athlete. For me, it provides an escape and slow things down.” Fromm said, “Life is passing you by very fast. I remember when I just came in as a freshman and now I’m sitting here at year three at SEC Media Days. It provides me a place to slow down and appreciate god’s creation.”
Another quarterback in Jarrett Guarantano may not take to the great outdoors to unplug from the world of social media, but he spends time talking with his fellow quarterbacks and detailed his time at the Manning Passing Academy as a great bonding experience with several of his peers in the SEC including Mizzou’s Kelly Bryant.
When it comes to handling the pressure of social media, South Carolina’s Jake Bentley went so far as deleting the Twitter app from his phone after the 2018 season came to an end with a disappointing 28-0 loss to the Virginia Cavaliers.
Going back to Fisher’s statement, he also mentioned in detail that this may be the most important thing that coaching staffs deal with outside of the X’s and O’s on a regular basis.
“I think that’s a big part of programs. I think those are the kind of programs in place that people who don’t have resources really struggle, and I think it hurts college kids. I think that’s always been a huge part of my development of players, is the psychological development, how they handle pressures, deal with issues, deal with all that stuff, different people to talk, from pastors, sports psychologists, psychologists, all that stuff.
“It’s the biggest problem — I said this ten years ago in a meeting one time in the ACC, and people said, well — they kind of laughed. I said, listen, guys, mental health is a huge part of what’s going on right now. When you’re 18, 20 years old, the kids — the things they’re facing is a hundred times greater than we ever did when we were coming up because of all y’all and the social media and the ability — the accessibility and the expectations, it’s crazy what these kids go through, and it’s a shame sometimes.”
Every student athlete’s college experience is going to vary and the SEC’s shift in focus to their mental health is a step in the right direction that several other conferences should be following if they’re not already implementing this.