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Disruption, Sports, and Pandemic

How colleges are failing kids and prioritizing profit over mental health.

Over the past months, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone across the globe. Unfortunately for the human race, this is not the first (or last) time a pandemic has brought life as we know it to a screeching halt. The 1918 Spanish flu devastated the global population in for two years, causing an estimated 50 million deaths world-wide. In 1957, the Asian Flu, killed over one million people and the 1968 Hong Kong flu killed an estimated four million people world-wide. Currently CORONA-19 has erased nearly one million lives to date. Despite containment efforts and the promise of a vaccine the economic ramifications have been far reaching and its emotional burden has created a monstrous mental health crisis.

No organization has been spared from the effects of COVID-19. Academic Institutions have shuttered and moved to online learning, forcing universities to endure staggering financial losses due to low enrollments and the loss of their housing revenues. These economic shortfalls have had a detrimental impact on varsity sports, particularly, non-revenue sports. Studies demonstrate that team sports provide mental health benefits that include improvements in academic performance, discipline, reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression, and development of leadership skills. Currently the model of athletic departments across the U.S. prioritizes revenues through commercialization of athletics at the expense of academic excellence and mental health. Using the words of John Wooden, the most winning coach in the NCAA, “I worry that business leaders are more interested in material gain than they are in having the patience to build up a strong organization, and a strong organization starts with caring for their people.”

In the early 1900s, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, recognized the global benefits of the intersection of education and sports across races, nationality, and income. The visionary realized that combining academics and athletics provided an opportunity for young people to learn important life skills such as cooperation, discipline, sportsmanship, teamwork, and tolerance. De Coubertin understood early on that increasing access to sports participation and maintaining equity across athletic disciplines is essential for positive youth development and even global sustainability. Countless studies highlight the importance of physical exercise on healthy brain development and mental and physical health. Is it surprising that 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs competed in college athletics?

Missy Cundiff, used with Permission
Source: Missy Cundiff, used with Permission

The current direction universities are taking in focusing on the exploitation of amateur athletes is leading schools like William & Mary away from the successful integration of athletics and academics. By cutting seven Olympic sports that have championship records, including nationally ranked athletes, Olympic trials qualifiers, and sizable endowments (resulting in minimal cost to the College), William & Mary exemplifies the move towards prioritizing commercialization and the detrimental shift away from de Coubertin’s powerful and balanced model of athletic and academic integration.

Sadly, the College of William & Mary is just one of many examples of a university placing the educational/athletic model on the sacrificial stone. The move away from the harmonious model, does not take into consideration the significant damage to current and future student-athletes. The loss of more and more athletic teams is adding undue stress to an already stressed-out adolescent population. Striking down Olympic sports is amplifying the already profound mental health difficulties this generation is experiencing, and will negatively impact future generations. Future dreams of competition and camaraderie are being shattered.

Prior to COVID-19, adolescents and young adults had been experiencing elevated levels of anxiety and depression, adding the pandemic to the mix has only complicated an already complicated situation. The benefit of team sports and physical activity on overall health is well accepted. The purging of sports creates a double burden by dismantling the support system of an athlete and forcing the reorganization of their identity. This introduces the harmful stress that an unplanned early retirement can have on athletes. It is not only dismissed athletes who struggle, retained athletes tread unsteadily in constant fear of elimination which negatively impacting their mental health. As the former Director-General of the World Health Organization highlighted, there is no health without mental health.

The current educational/athletics model is broken and the overall well-being and mental health of students is the price that is being paid. Though universities identify mental health as paramount, colleges and their athletic departments are making decisions to the detriment of the mental health of current and future student-athletes. These decisions, demonstrated by the cutting of non-revenue sports, demonstrate a lack of creativity, innovation, and—worse yet—will to protect the overall health and well-being of young people and the academic/athletic balance of the de Coubertin's Olympic model.