Police woke Indiana State Athletic Director Sherard Clinksdale early on August 21 with tragic news. Two of the college football players and another student died in a car accident.
Clinksdale immediately began devising a plan to console and support the teammates and friends of the deceased teenagers.
“There’s no playbook for something like this,” Clinksdale said.
But those who have experienced the unexpected death of a college athlete under their watch say the increased focus on mental health care in athletic departments and universities generally – spurred in part by the pandemic and lessons learned from other tragedies – helps respond to a crisis .
Heartbreak hit the University of Virginia earlier this week. Three members of the football team were shot and killed on a bus returning from Washington to the Charlottesville campus. Two other students, including one who is also a footballer, were injured.
The suspect in custody, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., 22, is a college student from Virginia and former member of the football team.
Classes, academic activities and the university’s home game Saturday against Coastal Carolina have been canceled, and the school has made counselors and therapy dogs available. Temporary memorials with flowers and stuffed animals popped up on campus throughout the week, including at Scott Stadium, home of the Cavaliers football team. Classes resumed on Wednesday, although the university said undergraduates won’t have to complete graded assignments or take exams until the Thanksgiving holiday.
Virginia athletic director Carla Williams said Tuesday the department has three psychologists for grieving teammates.
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“When we first met with the student-athletes, we had a lot of on-site counselors who were there and available to work with the student-athletes,” Williams said. “And not just our soccer student-athletes – with all of our student-athletes.”
Clinksdale said after being told that 18-year-old Christian Eubanks and 19-year-old Caleb VanHooser were killed in a single-vehicle wreck just outside Indiana State’s Terre Haute campus, he went to head coach Curt Mallory’s home to break the sad news for him.
Mallory took on the daunting task of notifying the players’ families that their sons had been killed.
Players and staff were reunited hours later, with a familiar face to lend their assistance: Dr. Ken Chew, director of the Indiana State Student Counseling Center.
“He’s been in front of our team before,” Mallory said. “It was not a first introduction.”
While university leaders have highlighted the increased emphasis on mental health services for students, athletes seem less convinced. A 2019 survey of college and university presidents published by Higher Education Today found that 80% of respondents indicated that mental health was a higher priority on campus than three years ago. About 7 in 10 college and university leaders said they were spending more money on addressing student mental health issues.
But only half of the 9,808 NCAA athletes who responded to a survey at the end of 2021 said they thought mental health was a priority for their athletics department – even after universities worked to strengthen services during the pandemic, as isolation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has prevented students from accessing resources. Of athletes surveyed by the NCAA, 53% said they believed their coaches took mental health issues seriously.
The NCAA does not have the authority to mandate how schools invest in and address mental health within their athletic departments, but its Institute of Sports Science offers resources such as mental health best practices, workshop templates and planning tools.
In the past five years in Washington State, Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide on January 16, 2018, and just over a year later defensive back Bryce Beekman died of an accidental overdose. Dr Sunday Henry, the team’s chief medical officer, was part of the response to both tragedies.
“Your primary care medical team and your mental health team immediately activate and assess the situation and how to respond,” Henry said. “What just happened? What do we need to do? For us, it was about getting everyone together. Tell them the news. And here are the resources available.
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Henry said she thinks coaches have generally become better at encouraging athletes, who can sometimes confuse vulnerability with weakness, to be more willing to seek help if they have mental health issues.
Communication and interaction with students is essential. Henry said sports coaches, who spend so much time with athletes, can play a vital role in trying to determine which students might need extra help.
At Virginia’s press conference on Tuesday, coach Tony Elliot talked about having “eyes” on the players.
“Nothing can prepare you for this situation, and we just want to be there to support the guys,” Elliott said.
Toledo athletic director Bryan Blair was Washington State’s assistant athletic director. He was hired shortly after Hilinski’s death and was on staff when Beekman died. He said all members of the department who come into regular contact with athletes must take a mental health first aid course.
“We all have some responsibility to be able to be a resource for student-athletes,” Blair said.
Mallory, whose late father Bill was a longtime Division I college football coach, has been coaching since the early 1990s. He said that even before the Indiana State tragedy, he spent time in one-on-one on Monday with players away from the field. Over the years, he devotes more and more time to these meetings.
“Even though I felt like they were fine, I still wanted to put them in front. You just don’t know,” he said.
In San Jose State, freshman running back Camdan McWright was killed last month when he was hit by a bus while riding a scooter near campus.
Sporting director Jeff Konya says head coach Brent Brennan broke the news to McWright’s family and it was Brennan and the player’s closest assistant coaches who spoke with his loved ones throughout the week. when a memorial was planned.
“And so it was an extra burden, and rightly so, it was put on our coaches, who had the best relationship with the family thanks to Camdan’s recruitment,” Konya said.
The team’s game against New Mexico State was postponed, and instead players and coaches spent time together watching football. The following week, before the Spartans’ return game, McWright was honored in a ceremony attended by his loved ones. San Jose State beat Nevada 35-28 in a cathartic win.
Konya, who served as a college athletics administrator for 36 years, said he has seen mental health care become more of a priority on campus and in athletics departments.
“We are in a better position now,” Konya said. “But it’s not foolproof and events like what happened here and what unfortunately happened in Virginia, those kind of extreme cases are going to need really special attention.”
AP sportswriter Erica Hunzinger contributed to this report.
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