By Andreas Themistocleous, Contributor
Nothing can really prepare you for the commitment required to be a collegiate student-athlete. Fans and the media, usually refer to us as “privileged”. I, for one, like to refer to student-athletes, myself formerly included, as “walking time bombs”.
Experience suggests that risks and temptations surrounding the dual role of a student-athlete are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Whether it be NCAA regulations, academic obligations, social and media obsessiveness, physiological and mental risks, behavioral issues, the list goes on and the risks are ever growing. Even I, sometimes, wonder if it is indeed a fair or reasonable exchange.
NCAA regulations forbid student-athletes from receiving any sort of compensation and/or gifts for the duration of their collegiate career. While hundreds of millions of dollars are being generated and exchanged for the product, arising from their mere presence on campus, student-athletes are left with lunch money and the ever-valuable free education. Regardless of right or wrong, student-athletes should remain focused and determined on achieving their two major goals: a) receiving a university degree, b) sporting success that translates in a professional playing contract. The simplistic view of the time spent in college as a long-term investment is the safest mental approach.
Additionally, student-athletes are prone to facing ethical dilemmas associated with participating in fixed-outcome games, they are vulnerable to gambling and to making easy and fast money, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds or with questionable chances to a professional sporting career. Sports teams often have extremely high group identity and cohesion and it’s not uncommon for these people to mimic behaviors or stay silent in what they view as act of loyalty towards the team. Trust me in saying that it’s not. If anything, sports teaches these group of men and women to respect the rules and play fair. They should make it a habit to utilize these transferable skills in their personal life too.
Choosing a career path, consequently an academic one, at the age of 18 is definitely not favorable, especially for these young people. Education should not be viewed as a necessary evil in achieving a professional sporting career. It’s a tool, a useful weapon; hence meeting academic goals should be an equally top priority for student-athletes. Skipping class, violating the school’s honor code, or using sports as the only passport should not be a choice; not even if the school itself is willing to turn the blind eye. As student-athletes, we have to strive for excellence, on and off the playing field; utilizing good time-management skills, accepting tutoring help from others, but above all understanding the importance of making a good effort in class year-round, pays dividends.
Imagine the stress associated with these combined performance demands. On a daily basis, on two totally different stages, we are asked to be at our best. Night in and night out, we should score points and good grades; could you have handled it? If not sure, then be smart about your social media interactions with student-athletes and when commenting about their performance; let media become wiser on the hype surrounding these student-athletes and their performance. At the end of the day they are just young adults in a learning environment, trying to master their traits.
In doing so, student-athletes themselves should take appropriate measures to counter these effects. They should learn to protect themselves, interact with people of their inner circle only (even if schools fear for their revenue streams) and accept that criticism is a never-ending cycle. They should be brave enough to seek and accept professional psychological support that can actually boost their performance, on top of helping them deal with stressors and disruptions. At the same time, they should not be afraid to assemble a team of trusted advisors. Family, friends, ex-coaches, community peers can help guide decisions, behaviors, choices and most importantly in preparing the transition to the next phase, whatever that may be.
Furthermore, student-athletes should not forget the ancient Greek saying “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. According to a study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and utilized by the Loyola University medical center in 2014, former athletes were found in worse physical function, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbances and pain interference compared to nonathletes. The athletes also reported more limitations in daily activities and more major and chronic injuries. It is evident that nutrition, rehabilitation and rest are vital in avoiding risks associated with injuries, fatigue, overuse, even mental stress.
Pause now for a second and think of a student-athlete, based on what I described above; where is the time for a romantic relationship? The time for a night out with friends? Not to mention vacation, missing out on family holidays, road trips etc. How does the social and media frantic attention alter these experiences? Whatever the case may be, it’s definitely not an excuse for any student-athlete to exhibit behavior that would otherwise not be tolerated on the field of play. Staying away from recreational drugs, alcohol, violent behaviors and outbursts, practicing safe sex, respecting the opposite sex, are all issues that don’t have to be in the play book in order to be followed.
Do you now truly understand my opening remark for “walking time bombs”? It’s only intended to warn and warrant a responsible reaction from all of us towards this gifted group of individuals, destined to offer us thrilling and exciting sporting days and nights. But they are so much more than just that, right? For them, failure is not an option. Think about it.
Andreas T. Themistocleous (BSc, MA, MBA) is a native of Famagusta, Cyprus. He is a former basketball player, a NCAA Division I student-athlete and now a sports management/business professional. He has served in the sport industry from several positions, most notably in club football management, as a Board member of sport federations and as lecturer in academia. He is currently in the sports services industry. To connect and network with Andreas, find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.