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Mind, Body and Sport: Harassment and discrimination – ethnic minorities

An excerpt from the Sport Science Institute’s guide to understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness

By Terrie Williams

While previous sections of this publication talked at length about common stressors on student-athlete mental health because of the unique position these students are in as athletes, cultural factors exist that complicate those stressors even further for under-represented student- athlete populations.

As a woman of color and someone who has experienced her own clinical depression, I am acutely aware of the challenges and stigma facing blacks when trying to address mental health issues. And as a trained licensed clinical social worker, I’ve had the great opportunity to engage with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and other mental health organizations that have allowed me to create mental health advocacy campaigns for the black community. 

The following comments focus on the work my colleague, Yolanda Brooks, and I have done over the past decade with black male athletes. To be sure, there are some commonalities in the experiences of black male athletes and the experiences of men and women from other racial and ethnic minority groups – and in the experiences of student-athletes from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, across all races and ethnicities. In my work with black male athletes, I have seen many struggle with socioeconomic barriers and remnants of a racist system that continues to plague many in this community. It is critical that athletics administrators and others working with minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged

student-athletes gain an appreciation for their unique experiences and backgrounds. 

To be a black man in our society often means to experience overt violence and subtle forms of racism. It may mean being stopped and frisked, racially profiled and made to feel insecure about the complexion of one’s skin. It may mean feeling pressure to not appear threatening to others for fear of being further harassed by police. Even in the absence of overt discrimination and racial violence, black men are too often aware that discrimination and violence are possible. Having to be constantly on guard has real physiologic consequences.

The young, developing black male may have experienced family violence and an absentee father. In some families, as a coping mechanism, black men are taught to cut off their feelings and normalize horrific events that happen to them personally or to people they know. What happens to the child and/or adult who watches a relative – or anyone – be killed in front of him and then has to go about his normal routine?

Another cultural factor that can negatively affect a young, developing black male is an adherence to hip-hop culture, which is heavily influenced by street culture and may define “ownership” of women and money as a means to feel valuable in place of authentic self-esteem. Within these settings, a maturing black male may learn or interpret that in order to be considered a man, one never discusses his feelings. It becomes safer to lash out in anger than to let on to the hurt within. The bruised ego, pride and self-loathing eventually manifest into a stoic demeanor that sabotages any chance of meaningful and intimate relationships.

In a number of instances, as young black student-

athletes were developing, parents altered the family lifestyle (changed/left jobs, moved to another city, etc.) so that the most talented child would have the best opportunity to succeed in his/her sport. This could mean playing for the best elite team (which is expensive) or getting the coveted college athletics scholarship.

But if the student-athlete is underperforming, loses passion for the sport or wants to develop a more balanced lifestyle (engaging in social behaviors of a typical adolescent athlete versus the insulated, isolated, intense, laser-focused, all-consuming lifestyle of elite sports), there may be strong pushback from the support network – especially those who’ve sacrificed or have made a strong investment in the student-athlete. They aren’t allowed to quit even if they wanted to, as there has been too much invested in that student-athlete – too much is at stake.

When they arrive at college, many black student-athletes experience an additional set of stressors. These can include a feeling of isolation from the majority and from dominant social-cultural aspects of college life, the absence of supportive social networks outside of sports, academic struggles (and in some instances, barriers) created by socioeconomic challenges. 

In environments where there are sociocultural differences, some black student-athletes may struggle to transition and fit in. This may overwhelm an already stressed individual. Student-athletes – particularly those in high-profile sports – are not new to high-pressure situations. However, if stretched beyond their capacity to manage, they may find themselves struggling to adjust to the demands of their life situation regardless of talent, potential or sport.

These stressors can leave the student-athlete overwhelmed and vulnerable to developing stress-related symptoms, mental disorders such as clinical depression and anxiety, or even at higher risk to incur a career-threatening injury. As a group, blacks tend not to seek help for psychological problems – and student-athletes are even less likely to do so in fear of appearing weak and vulnerable.

Managing all of these stressors and pressures can challenge the strongest adult; however, for a college student- athlete (who is still growing and developing mentally and physically), such demands can quickly overwhelm and lead to serious mental and behavioral problems. Reactionary high-risk behaviors (substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, illegal activity, etc.) may emerge along with avoidance and detachment from support networks.

To effectively address this issue, there need to be outreach strategies embedded systemically in collaborative athletics and health programs in order to identify, enhance and encourage these student-athletes to access support – and if warranted, intervention – before sliding down the slippery slope of stressed to distressed to depressed.