Poe’s Perspective: Athletes deserve better support
Julia Poe | Daily TrojanTragedy strikes in a unique way when it hits an athlete.I never saw Tyler Hilinski play a single game for Washington State. He was a bench player when USC traveled to Pullman for its stunning Week 5 loss, and I didn’t watch his valiant effort in the Cougars’ Holiday Bowl defeat to Michigan State.But when I heard the news of his death last week, I was almost moved to tears. The story was shocking — Hilinski, the starting quarterback for an up-and-coming D-I team, was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and a suicide note at his side.The news spread quickly with outpourings of support and grief coming from athletes, coaches and fans across the country. Hilinski was a year older than me, described as a supportive and affectionate leader on his team. Maybe it was the shock that struck me and many other football fans so deeply, the concept that an otherwise golden star could be so deeply and secretly troubled.But for me, the loss came with a sense of fear. Hilinski’s suicide was one in a line of similar cases in previous years. It came as a chilling reminder to those who love sports that despite our passion for the players who take the field for our teams, there is little-to-no support for these athletes when they step out of the weight room and lockers and into the rest of their lives.In their years as college athletes, these young men and women give everything to their schools. But often, their colleges are giving little in return in the way of mental health support.In the wake of another death, we must take time to grieve the loss of this young man. But the NCAA must also take this tragedy as a sign that things need to change — fast.The reason that fans fall in love with sports is often that it serves as a release, an escape from real life. For a couple hours, their attention and passion are diverted into something that really, truly doesn’t affect their lives. Win or lose, life will go on, but the game can often feel bigger than a mere game.Their team is the family they never had, a mascot and a uniform that never changes or leaves from year to year. (Unless, I guess, you’re a fan of the Rams, Chargers or Raiders. Sorry, guys.)And even when it might be nonexistent in other aspects of a sports fan’s life, when it comes to the game, there is regularity, rule and order. There is passion, loyalty and respect. Sports make sense when many other things don’t, and even when a referee makes a bad call or a team catches a bad break, there is comfort in the self-righteous grumbling of any fan who has been wronged.Fans and players alike experience this redemptive power of sport. Basketball probably saved my life when I was younger, one of the many reasons that it remains the most sacred sport, even as I attend a football school two time zones away from my beloved hometown team.When I was 16, there were a lot of things falling apart in my life — I was hiding my sexuality, I fought with my parents almost every day and I could barely keep up with school. The year I turned 16 was a year that I almost didn’t survive, and when I look back, I see now that somehow, a sport kept me going.There was a time when I dreamed of playing college ball, but by junior year of high school I was just playing to play. As a post who barely hit 5-foot-10 in my shoes, I wasn’t exactly a star, but I could rebound and defend well enough to play a decent role on my school team.To my team, I probably didn’t seem all that invested — I didn’t hang out with my teammates off the court, and I typically prioritized grades and the school newspaper ahead of practice. But at a time when it was an effort to wake up and go to school every morning, that game gave me something I desperately needed.Every day, basketball practice provided two hours during which I escaped everything else. For those hours, I didn’t have time to think about anything except how to front a girl four inches taller than me, or how to break a full-court press, or how to stop my lungs from aching at the end of sprint drills.Basketball was simple and beautiful to me. And it gave my family — which was struggling with the cliched turmoil of an only child coming of age and coming out — a shared love that overcame any of our other arguments. We talked about my team and our team, the University of Kansas Jayhawks, as much as we talked about anything that winter. It was an easy topic of conversation, something we often lacked at that time. In the process, basketball saved me and my family a little bit.I say this because I want to be clear — I don’t believe that sports, on their own, are to blame for tragedies such as the loss of Hilinski. But somehow, as we’ve built college and professional sports into goliath industries, we’ve come to ask more and more of these young athletes without asking what they need in return.Their workouts are harder, their regiments stricter, and the stakes seem almost unbelievably high for athletes who are bigger, stronger and faster than their predecessors. Yet despite these monumental expectations, very little attention is paid to the mental health of collegiate athletes.It almost seems illogical, especially to those of us who love these games so deeply. How can something that brings so much joy into so many lives also be the thing that ends many others? How can sport, which is supposed to be fun, which is supposed to raise young men and women to be better, stronger people, also be a force that breaks them down?ESPN writer Kate Fagan once wrote that becoming a college athlete is “like walking through an obstacle course wearing a blindfold.” Fagan became famous in the sportswriting world several years ago, when she told the story of Madison Holleran, a star runner and Ivy League student at the University of Pennsylvania who killed herself after years of hiding her battle with mental illness.At the time, Holleran’s death was a shock that sent waves of questions, doubt and concern throughout the country. How could this happen? But that shock soon faded as other issues took hold, and even the 2017 publication of Fagan’s book about Holleran’s life and death failed to revive the same level of discussion surrounding mental illness.But the discussion was revived after the loss of Hilinski, in part because the quarterback’s struggles remain such a mystery to his teammates and coaches. The morning of his death, Hilinski texted his teammates to set up a throwing session later that night. He seemed enthusiastic, said head coach Mike Leach. He was someone who “would lift up others that were down.” From the outside, Leach said, there was no sign that Hilinski was struggling at all.This would come as less of a shock if the NCAA had made a larger effort in supporting the emotional and mental health of athletes. But that’s not the case.In January 2014, less than 25 Division I schools staffed a full-time mental health practitioner in their athletic departments. That number has grown after the NCAA GOALS (Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in College) study and program in 2016, as well as a survey in the same year, found that 39 percent of Division I athletic departments now staff mental health clinicians.But that’s still fewer than 50 percent. This means that over 50 percent of student athletes do not have access to even one mental health resource for four of the most tumultuous and challenging years of their lives. And even at those schools where a clinician is staffed, how is one professional meant to provide support to hundreds of young athletes? At Washington State, only one counselor works with the athletes of 15 teams. There are more trainers on the sidelines of a football game than there are mental health professionals for the entire department.There is, of course, no way to completely protect young athletes from mental illness. But there is also no reason that the starting quarterback of a Division I football team should not have the resources or the support to tackle any issue regarding mental health. While the national family of football fans should look at this as a tragic loss, the NCAA should also see it as a catalyst for change.The NCAA must put its students first. This doesn’t mean just tossing money into a few studies, or creating a “task force” to meet at a conference once a year. If the NCAA is serious about supporting its athletes, it must implement policies that require resources to be available and encourages students to utilize them despite any previous stigma.For those of us who support young athletes on weekends, on the field and the track and the court, we must also call for change. These young athletes are students just like any of us. They’re young, overwhelmed and afraid of the future. Over the course of college, they’ll be put through a pressure cooker of emotions with little to no experience in how to handle themselves. It’s up to all of us to give these athletes our full support, on off days and in the offseason, not just from the stands.Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Tuesdays.