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Athletes: still human

BY WILL MATTESSICH | JANUARY 20, 2011 7:10 AM

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The end of this year’s football season has been a tough one for Hawkeye fans. Eleventh-hour losses were followed by scandals for several players, culminating in the sobering events of this week’s trial.

The reaction to these events by the University of Iowa community emphasize a problem with universities across the country: Athletes are far too esteemed and far too scrutinized, harming our communities and the athletes themselves.

Isn’t it odd for a middle-age man to idolize boys who went on their first dates when he had his first child? It is important to remember that football players are still just college kids, many of whom can’t legally buy a beer. Most fans don’t associate this type of humanity with football players.

Student-athletes experience extraordinary privilege. They are treated as demigods around campus (and, in Iowa, around most of the state), and they are held to less rigorous academic standards than their fellow students.

But they also experience extraordinary pressure. Their entire lives are focused on living up to the expectations of the community, both on and off the field, and they provide huge profits to universities, conferences, and the NCAA.

The privilege and the pressure go hand-in-hand, and they can both prove overwhelming.

The “student” portion of “student-athletes” is frequently played down at Division 1 schools, where athletics often receive far more publicity than academics. Not all athletes do poorly in college, but their academics are not emphasized nearly enough by their institutions. In a survey conducted by the NCAA, only 61 percent of NCAA football players said that academic honesty was valued at their school. The community tells them that it is worse to lose a football game than to plagiarize. This attitude hurts the institutions and, in the long run, the players.

This values disparity between athletes and non-athletes leads to harmful, yet predictable, patterns of behavior. The end of this season found several Hawkeye players charged with or in court for various offenses.

Some people were alarmed, but why do we expect anything different? We primarily require football players to run, jump, and crash into each other for our entertainment, and they know it. These players probably felt far worse after losing to Ohio State, because their community tells them that winning is what is important. It would be hard not to feel like you could behave however you pleased if people drove hundreds of miles to watch you play a game and named their children after you.

But being a student-athlete isn’t all positives. They are unpaid pawns in the NCAA’s game of ratings and profits. Their universities use them for cash and give them benefits in return, and the Hawkeye football players generated more than $38 million of revenue for the program last year. All of these athletes understand that any decrease in their performance could mean the elimination of those benefits.

Athletes experience huge amounts of stress from this knowledge. The Mayo Clinic conducted a study that showed that once student-athletes are injured, they often experience profound, harmful periods of depression. It concluded that the depression is worst for athletes ages 15-24, the age group in America that has the highest risk for suicide. No athlete should take his own life because of being unable to perform; people are worth more than that.

Administrators, coaches, fans, and media are all complicit to a certain degree in creating this culture. We all need to try to fix it. Let’s use the events of this season to temper both the pressure and the privilege we accord these young men. Let’s appreciate their accomplishments on the field but emphasize our commitment to them as students and people as well. Let’s remember that athletes are human beings and encourage their humanity, not just their physical performance.


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