Student-athletes at Penn have some of the hardest jobs in the world.
They wake up early. They practice in the evenings, so they have to stay up late to work. They sometimes have to cut or gain significant weight in a short period of time. They get injured — and they often play through it. They get concussions, and later in their lives, many of them suffer long-term consequences from it.
But Penn Athletics doesn’t want to talk about any of it.
When we set out to create a Mental Health Issue, we sought to cover all aspects of mental health within the realm of sports at Penn. We wanted to give athletes the chance to talk about all of the pervasive forces you see in Sports Illustrated’s finest pieces, from body image to CTE.
Athletes — and especially student-athletes at an Ivy League university — face a unique set of challenges that very few can relate to. I admit that in writing this, I can only lean on what I have seen and heard over three years of covering them, along with a sad past of athletics-related injuries and mental deficiencies myself, to guide my perspective on the topic.
But when we sought to coordinate this issue with Athletic Communications, and whenever we have spoken with anyone working in Penn Athletics from the lowest staffer up to the athletic director, excuse after excuse found a way to avoid speaking about the subject.
It started with depression.
We sought to open up a conversation about the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Timothy Hamlett, a track and field athlete who died in the 2014-15 school year. Allegations in an active lawsuit by Hamlett’s parents state that Robin Martin, Hamlett’s coach, knew that Hamlett had “attempted suicide” in the past and did not show any attempt to check in with Hamlett — calling his parents instead and expressing concern for his use of marijuana.
Penn’s Director of Athletic Communications and the Director of Athletics have both declined to comment on the topic.
Hamlett was the second track athlete to die by suicide that year. Madison Holleran died a year earlier after a long struggle with her mental health that other people had knowledge of.
But depression isn’t the only mental health issue we’ve sought to cover. Next, we wanted to talk about the physical health of athletes and their brains. Multiple football, sprint football, and soccer players each year suffer concussions that have far-reaching repercussions. Not even just in the long-term, when former athletes can become afflicted with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), but in the short term, athletes must navigate a series of issues ranging from handling classes while still concussed to following the steps to be cleared for action once again. And all this is assuming that athletes have their concussions reported to medical staff.
Again, though, Athletic Communications has declined to speak on all facets of the subject, from the short-term considerations of concussion protocol to the long-term considerations athletes face when participating in high-impact sports.
As the gatekeeper for reaching student-athletes, Penn Athletics has significant influence in campus discourse that involves them. While they might understandably shield athletes who have just suffered from a crushing defeat, they act too quickly to shield student-athletes from all sensitive discourse altogether.
Wrestlers, gymnasts and sprint football players all must worry constantly about their weight or their appearances. Surely having to spend so much time looking at a scale or a mirror has an effect on athletes — but we can’t know. At times, Penn Athletics speaks for its athletes by saying the athletes wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking on this subject; at others, they say they wouldn’t feel comfortable having the athletes speaking about it.
Student-athletes have hard lives, but they’re not alone. The entire Penn community has had a difficult year thus far. Multiple deaths, mental health issues and other hardship has driven the Penn administration to finally open up in an unprecedented move and host a ‘Campus Conversation’ at which the community can discuss pressing issues and potential solutions.
Penn Athletics needs to follow suit.
Very little progress has ever occurred without a spotlight shone upon an issue. It’s clear that Penn student-athletes struggle with mental health issues — high levels of athletes are resigning from multiple teams. To be a Penn student inherently leads to certain issues, but adding the stress of a 25-hour-a-week commitment, let alone other potential problems like a negative environment or a debilitating injury, only further complicate matters for student-athletes.
To be clear, there are many teams with strong, cohesive internal cultures, and there are many student-athletes who make it through four years at Penn without having their lives grind to a halt as a result of mental health issues.
But those who don’t make it through so easily deserve an outlet to discuss their experiences with who will listen. They deserve the chance to start a conversation about the factors that made their collegiate careers so difficult, a conversation that can help prevent future athletes from having the same problems. A conversation that can generate real change.
If there were significant advances in Penn Athletics’ mental health and wellness policies or initiatives since the string of suicides several years ago, you would have heard about it already. Penn Athletics has never been afraid to tout its accomplishments — or even the facades of such.
In Penn Athletics' strategic plan, which covers the next five years through 2022, the subject of mental wellness doesn't even appear until the eighth page of the ten-page document. The vaguely-worded commitment to making sure student-athletes are "mentally and emotionally well" is the only location in the strategic plan where mental wellness receives any attention, vastly less highly prioritized than fundraising projects and winning championships.
By denying student-athletes the chance to speak on subjects integral to their college experiences, Penn Athletics denies them the chance to enjoy progress in their state of health and wellness.
There is much to be assessed and much to be done if Penn Athletics is to solve all of its cultural issues. But that can be framed optimistically — there’s significant room for growth. Penn’s administration realized this and initiated a Campus Conversation. There is no guarantee that progress will come of it, but its existence at all is a sign of progress itself.
The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that there is one.
Penn Athletics can do this at any time — if only they will allow a light to shine upon it.
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