Disruption, Sports and Pandemic: How Colleges Are Failing Student-Athletes

Courtesy: Linda Olszewski

Over the past months the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone across the globe. Unfortunately for the human race, this is not the first time (or last) 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. COVID-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 1900’s 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 CEO’s competed in college athletics?

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.

ABOUT LINDA OLSZEWSKI

Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD, is a NY State licensed clinical psychologist, Associate Professor of Psychology, and Director of the McShane Center for Psychological Services at Pace University in New York City. Dr. Olszewski is specialized in working with adolescents and their families. Dr. Olszewski is on volunteer faculty at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. As a former NCAA Division 1 athlete, Dr. Olszewski has a strong interest in athletics, sports, and performance psychology. Finally, Dr. Olszewski has also been fascinated with technology and its role in the lives of children, adolescents, and parents. She is the author of the Screen Time Questionnaire (STQ) which looks at how children and parents use technology separately and together. She also writes a popular blog for Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/drifting-adulthood

31
Leave a Reply

Subscribe
Notify of
31 Comments
oldest
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Zaq
6 days ago

You make great points but who is going to pay the bill? Btw nobody is saying don’t compete in athletics while you are in university, there are plenty of intramural options and I imagine swimming might consider this model. I am a big fan of Title IX but there are consequences that came along with it. Title IX all but destroyed collegiate wrestling with the exception of a few pockets still left. As far as the stressed out adolescents, we have a wonderful opportunity that has been highlighted by the current social justice movement. We need to reinstate mandatory national service, with civilian and military options, for all 18-20yo Americans. Forty other countries have some version of mandatory service, it… Read more »

Swimmingnerd
Reply to  Zaq
6 days ago

Intramural sports are for regular students. Athletes do not train their whole lives for intramurals.

CAA Swammer
Reply to  Swimmingnerd
6 days ago

Maybe student-athletes should be “regular students” in the way de Coubertin intended. It’s great that university teams can be an aspiration for age-group Olympic sport athletes, but I believe that the student-athlete balance was lost many years ago with preferential admissions, athletic scholarships, and other constructs that incentivize these students to be athletes first. Of course, these effects are worse among sports with pro leagues like football and baseball, but Olympic sports are not exempt. Take a look at a school like Berkeley: Computer Science is easily the most popular majors (BA CS & EECS) at the school thanks to extremely good career outcomes, yet the major is severely underrepresented on the swim teams, in addition to the general trend… Read more »

1001pools
Reply to  CAA Swammer
6 days ago

It’s pretty clear that almost nobody can handle both the highest level of athletics and the highest level of academics, especially in challenging majors (i.e. STEM).” Not clear to me, especially when I look at the careers many of my former NCAA D1 swimming teammates and competitors have pursued, the companies they’ve started, etc. Moreover, in my professional career, I have found many people in STEM careers who had and continue to have intense sports commitment through and beyond university. I contend that high level commitment in sports goes perfectly with a high level commitment to academic success. The mind and body are not separate and can/should be nurtured together.

Andy G
Reply to  1001pools
6 days ago

You are right on. My son is a dual sport scholarship athlete with a 3.7 in Mechanical Engineering. His success in athletics AND academics is a symbiotic relationship.

swimapologist
Reply to  Andy G
6 days ago

I’d like to see receipts for a dual sport scholarship athlete with a 3.7 in Mechanical Engineering who is competing at the elite level of NCAA athletics.

Dual sport and 3.7 GPA is still impressive at a lower level, props to him, but I’m not sure that actually cuts at the claim made above, though I do think it’s possible to compete at the elite level and get a high-ranking degree.

theworm
Reply to  swimapologist
5 days ago

totally possible to compete at an elite level academically and athletically. My friend is a former D1 swimmer, did his undergrad in 3 years and used his 4th year of eligibility to begin his masters/PhD is physics. Graduated with honors. AND is an Olympic Trials qualifier.

CAA Swammer
Reply to  1001pools
6 days ago

To be clear: I absolutely believe there are plenty of exceptional student-athletes that can do both. Andy has provided us with an anecdotal example. However, I’d maintain that these students like the ones you see highlighted by CoSIDA are the outliers among the exceptional group of students talented enough to compete on the varsity level.

The question I’m proposing is: “is it still a good idea to have student-athletes do it all simultaneously?” Would they have the opportunity to achieve more (athletically and/or academically) if they could focus on athletics, then become a student after retirement?

Many student-athletes essentially create this scenario already by continuing on to graduate school where they can focus solely on school.

Last edited 6 days ago by CAA Swammer
Dr EO
Reply to  1001pools
6 days ago

Yes, and studies support this. Swimmers in particular demonstrate high scholarly achievement.

CAA Swammer
Reply to  Dr EO
6 days ago

Nobody’s arguing that there isn’t a correlation between fitness & mental performance, but is 20+ hours of elite training per week better than 10 hours plus the additional time to focus on studies? That’s the debate here.

1001pools
Reply to  CAA Swammer
6 days ago

“…is 20+ hours of elite training per week better than 10 hours plus the additional time to focus on studies?”

I contend that we’d see greater improvements in population health, mental well-being and academic performance if, instead of asking our elite student-athletes to forgo 10 hours a week of training, we ask ALL students to participate in 10 hours of intense exercise as if they were a varsity athlete per week.

CAA Swammer
Reply to  1001pools
5 days ago

…ask ALL students to participate in 10 hours of intense exercise…

I agree. However, this is an irrelevant argument: we’re talking about enabling student-athletes to succeed, not the general student body population.

Questionable
Reply to  CAA Swammer
5 days ago

Why do you even ask this? Have you ever looked at the top academically performing teams on many college campuses? Often time swimming/diving is one of the top 3 if not the top academic program in the entire school.

CAA Swammer
Reply to  Questionable
5 days ago

I think you’re missing my point. I’m arguing that all student-athletes at elite-level academic colleges trend towards easier majors (proportionally, relative to the overall student body) due to the overwhelming demands of performing both academically and athletically, in part due to ever-increasing levels of competition on both fronts.

Lkg4dmcrc
Reply to  CAA Swammer
6 days ago

You should check out John Urschel’s memoir on how he balanced a Penn State Football career and a Masters in Math. John went on to play for the Ravens and is getting his PhD in Math from MIT.

CAA Swammer
Reply to  Lkg4dmcrc
6 days ago

I have a ton of respect for John Urschel and I appreciate the suggestion; I didn’t know he wrote a book and hope to read it someday.

Still, Urschel’s unusual academic success (and subsequent book) really only strengthens the argument that strong academic success is rare among student-athletes due to conflicting demands. Also, just because he overcame the challenges of balancing football & math doesn’t validate that NCAA amateurism is a good way to build students into professional athletes who can find success after sport.

Zaq
Reply to  Swimmingnerd
6 days ago

Why does the training burden have to fall on universities? The rest of the world works within the confines of the club system. I happen to see the value of university sponsored athletics but we seem to be at the point that many of these non-revenue sports are simply a luxury the university can’t afford or doesn’t see the value for the expense.

CAA Swammer
Reply to  Zaq
6 days ago

Agreed; USA Gymnastics has remained competitive with most athletes coming directly from clubs and with relatively few university-sponsored programs.

Swim5
Reply to  CAA Swammer
6 days ago

I think you forgot the age of most Olympic gymnasts. Most are 16-18, and it’s rare for one to go to 2 Olympics in a row. Few are in college, but there are examples of Olympic gymnasts that chose not to receive any endorsements and competed at the NCAA level (look at UCLA for crying out loud). Another huge flaw in your argument is they only send 5 athletes for gymnastics. Now…. obviously the Olympic swim team is much much large, most are around college age, if not older….. and almost the entire team swam for a university. Almost all of the young Olympic swimmers choose to forgo their endorsements to swim in the NCAA…. there is a reason why… Read more »

CAA Swammer
Reply to  Swim5
6 days ago

I didn’t forget the age difference. Those elite-level gymnasts tend to purse nontraditional high school education, effectively forgoing the “high school experience”. I don’t see why amateur athletes can’t take the same approach to college or simply delay college until later. The differences in the Olympic roster sizes doesn’t mean much. I’d argue that club & high school swimming in the US is already proportionally much larger than gymnastics, even without accounting for any kind of new intramural/amateur league to replace NCAA swimming. It’s true that Franklin & Ledecky (and maybe now Smith?) went amateur over endorsements, but even those notable examples went amateur for only 2 years. If there are more examples of swimmers who turned down endorsements, I’m… Read more »

Coach
Reply to  Swimmingnerd
6 days ago

What do you mean by regular?

The Importer AND Exporter
Reply to  Swimmingnerd
6 days ago

Michael Andrew has shown the way for those athletes…

Scoobysnak
Reply to  Zaq
6 days ago

Considering that our country barely supports its military veterans now i would have no confidence that mandatory service in the US military would produce any societal benefits

sven
Reply to  Scoobysnak
6 days ago

There are things that could be better for vets, i.e. mental health services, but in general I feel very supported by the country. I grew up a lot and learned many important things while in the military and I agree with the original comment that a similar model with civilian options would be extremely beneficial to society.

Zaq
Reply to  Scoobysnak
6 days ago

Read what I said carefully, military and civilian options. What is wrong with VISTA, Americorps etc.?

SwimFan
6 days ago

Dr O – Wonderful article filled with many truths. Wish you were in charge of the NCAA, USA and WORLD!

Thank you!

Ol' Longhorn
6 days ago

Those are some serious glasses.

theworm
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
5 days ago

Duh. The signifier of the intellectual.