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Racism Pervades College Sports. It’s Taking An Alarming Toll On Athletes.

Students say they’re treated more like machines than humans.

Rice University football players march across the Houston campus in a show of unity by the team to protest systemic racism in September 2020. (Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Sometimes, fans would hurl the N-word. Other times, they’d tell her how much she looked like a man. Occasionally, in less of a low blow, they’d talk down to her, calling her “girl.”

The slurs are not uncommon to Koi Love. Playing college basketball in the Southeastern Conference meant traveling to majority white Southern towns. And as a Black woman, the team trips required being in a constant state of high alert.

It’s a drop in the bucket of the stress piling onto Black athletes, chipping away at their mental health. 

The National Collegiate Athletics Association has long been criticized for profiting from young adults’ labor. Modern-day slavery, some say. Keep the fans coming. Cram the arena. Bring in revenue. Sports programs nationwide are pushing young adults to the edge to prepare for game day. And, although rare, the strain has ended in death. The system relies heavily on the money-generating sports of football and basketball where Black athletes make up more than half, and their well-compensated coaches are overwhelmingly white. 

Still, the operation is also mixed with extraordinary hopes for young athletes. Seeds — filled with aspirations of jampacked stadiums, stardom and big paychecks — first planted before some started to crawl. That, athletes say, does not come without its unique emotional toll.

It was a Monday morning in May and Love was taking a seat on the stage at the University of Southern California to present her research to an audience of more than 1,440. Black student athletes, along with administrators from over 180 schools nationwide, had already filed into Bovard Auditorium. 

As her slides on the state of athletes’ mental health progressed, pain dripped off the screen.

“People assume because I’m a Black woman that I’m okay? Like we can take more and tolerate more,” one quote read. “I just know that if I break, people will attack that crack when they see it. I can’t afford to mess up.”

Another read, “The support we receive as Black female student athletes is like putting a Band-Aid on wounds that need stitches.”

It is evidence that the machine of college athletics often operates as if it has forgotten its players are human, and the consequences are particularly acute for Black athletes who are battling physical pain, emotional exhaustion, and microaggressions within their athletic departments on top of racial slurs by fans. In the midst of racism, the pressure to perform academically and athletically is relentless. The suffering is pushing Black collegiate athletes to the brink.

“I see a lot of trauma,” said Taylor J. Langley, a counseling and sport psychologist. “The kids are unwell.”

Glimpses of that bubble to the surface as the Black Student Athlete Summit rolls on. 

“Raise your hand if you play a sport,” one presenter prompted, before diving into the panel discussion. He told the crowd to keep them raised if they attended a predominantly white institution, then asked if they’d ever experienced imposter syndrome, or unfounded feelings of incompetence and self-doubt.

“Keep them raised if your institution makes an effort to support Black student athletes.”

Nearly all the hands that had still been floating above the crowd dropped in an instant, along with the mood in the room.

Koi Love, a member of the University of Southern California women’s basketball team, poses for a photo outside of Bovard Auditorium at the 2023 Black Student Athlete Summit. (courtesy of Koi Love)

To be a Black athlete on campus, some said, means always feeling behind on LinkedIn and internships while being an athlete minority among the Black minority in higher education, trying to navigate microaggressions. The pressure to perform on the field lingers, too. They manage injuries, sometimes concealing them to keep a spot. And when they finally seek counseling services, few — if any — therapists look like them. 

They wonder if the mental health services their athletic departments provide are truly confidential. Hanging over their heads is the fear that their coach might punish them for how much they’re struggling. They juggle a regular course load. And, because most won’t go professional, they will eventually be forced to grapple with figuring out who they are beyond their sport.

Rates of exhaustion, anxiety, and depression among student athletes have remained elevated since 2020, according to data from the most recent well-being survey by the NCAA. And the rates among minority groups, such as women, athletes of color,  and LGTBQ athletes, were the highest. 

There is growing alarm amongst mental health counselors within athletic departments who say they are concerned about suicide among their athletes. Many report feeling alone, they say. 

One morning, tucked in a session on the power of faith in sports, was a nod to the frightening realities of what toxic campus cultures can trigger.

“God, if someone here is dealing with suicidal thoughts,” the pastor prayed, “I ask that your love will capture their hearts.”

Read more: Clinicians Dismiss Black Women’s Pain. The Consequences Are Dire.

The survey — conducted by Love and USC’s United Black Student-Athlete Association — reveals a troubling truth. Within the more than 100 responses from student athletes from 12 different sports across the country, there was the soccer player who has reported referees multiple times. The first time was in high school when she held up a peace sign and the referee told her, “There is no gangbanging on the field.”

Another athlete described being called “you people” by a college volleyball coach, then feeling retaliated against for speaking up. 

Another who felt ignored when she complained about being in pain. Even outside of sports, physicians have shown a pattern of distrust when Black patients seek treatment for pain across a wide variety of diagnoses. In the emergency room, Black patients with bone fractures are less likely to receive pain medication. 

‘Silence … makes progress really hard’

A lot of the suffering these student athletes endure flies under the radar, then it is exacerbated by media portrayals that depict Black athletes as “classless” and “ghetto” in response to their confidence and competitiveness. Sports are, in many ways, a microcosm of broader social issues. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia cannot help but spill onto the court. 

“Silence, which is prevalent in athletics, makes progress really hard,” said Reuben Faloughi, a Florida-based psychologist. Faloughi walked onto the University of Georgia’s football team as a linebacker in 2009, then joined Mizzou’s racial justice protests in the fall of 2015 as he pursued his doctorate in clinical psychology. “The environments aren’t set up to humanize Black athletes,” he said.

Reuben Faloughi, who once played football at the University of Georgia, leads a march following the death of George Floyd in Gainesville, Florida. (courtesy of Reuben Faloughi)

Ashley Chevalier stood on the steps outside the auditorium where the summit was being held. Under California’s afternoon sun, she recounted a traumatic freshman year. It was 2020 and she was battling anxiety and depression on top of playing for a white coach who she felt didn’t understand her. She couldn’t sleep, and dreaded practice because of how harsh the criticism was, she said. 

Chevalier sought counseling within the athletic department but what she got was only enough to get back on the basketball court, she felt. There was no focus on long-term wellness and it didn’t feel confidential. Her voice was loaded with frustration as she spoke of the time when she had to take a friend who had tried to take their own life to the emergency room, and was expected to go practice right afterward.

It all culminated in her transferring institutions. 

When she did, she posted a note to her Instagram in the spring of 2022. “The reality of this decision is that it was life saving,” she wrote, after stating she left to take care of her mental health. She goes on to write about feeling destroyed in the environment, then watching teammates cope in “unhealthy and dangerous ways.”

She wrote, “I’m sick of seeing all these colleges preach about mental health but do nothing proactive in protecting their athletes.” A year later, Chevalier is urging coaches to take more accountability for their impact on players.

The burdens also pile on for LGTBQ folks who may feel isolated, said Resa Lovelace, an assistant athletic director at the University of Maryland. “When we talk about the Black community, LGBTQ folks are often missing from the conversation.”

The Black sports psychologists working with these athletes are hoping to slowly chip away at the stigma around seeking mental health care. Many times, the depression and anxiety seen by Langley, the counselor, boils down to a deep-seated pressure to succeed, she said, which might intensify in the coming years now that athletes can earn money through endorsements, social media, and appearances.

She is working, particularly with her Black male athletes, on breaking down the tough exteriors. They are often hesitant to share their feelings, she said. These young men, especially the top performers, are often mistreated and misguided by the institutions they attend, research shows

“It’s okay to have emotions,” Langley reminds them. “It’s okay to cry.”

A safe space to be vulnerable

What started on a napkin has become somewhat of a change agent for college athletics. The first Black Student Athlete Summit materialized in the spring of 2016 with less than 80 people on the University of Texas at Austin campus. This year’s numbers tower in comparison, with about 600 more than last year, when it was held in Houston.

And it drew big names. Former NBA player Matt Barnes. The National Basketball Association’s chief diversity officer. Rich Paul, the founder and chief executive officer of Klutch Sports Group. Voices from the NCAA.

The content is important, but the supportive environment and community building is most valuable, said Leonard Moore, the summit’s founder and executive director. When asked why he thinks people keep coming back, Moore replied, “We don’t sugarcoat anything.”

Tough discussions surface. How much did the student athletes in the room feel their coaches supported them beyond their sport? 

One young man spoke about not feeling that his coach had empathy for all the deaths in his family during his freshman year. “He was going to keep kicking me while I was down,” the player said of his coach. “If you’re not on the field producing, they don’t have anything for you.”

A young woman spoke about being told she could only be off campus for a day while trying to get home for a funeral. What happens when not showing up to practice means not playing the next three games?

“Who is controlling these toxic environments that students walk into?” said Moore. “No one wants to talk about these coaches that are extremely dysfunctional.” 

Leonard Moore is the founder and executive director of the Black Student Athlete Summit. (courtesy of Leonard Moore)

Even as nearly 200 schools send their student athletes to the summit in a show of support, “we cannot assume all is well,” said Ajhanai (AJ) Keaton, an assistant professor at University of Louisville studying how race and gender shape norms and experiences withinsports organizations. It’s an empowering space that allows those who are the only Black person on their teams to find community and make sense of the racism they face, she said. Keaton sees similar pain to what the student athletes are carrying among Black faculty, staff and administrators who are fighting for equity within athletic departments. 

“There’s an unloading that happens here,” she said. “Some people just need to get it out.”

In recent years, Black student athlete affinity groups have been popping up at institutions from coast to coast, giving players a space to express themselves, meet players from other teams, and advocate for their needs to university administrations — an additional burden among the laundry list of pressures and responsibilities.

“It’s hard to be pushing a narrative when you’re trying to just wake up and be yourself,” said Samirah Moody, a sophomore track and field sprinter. “You’re trying to remind yourself of your value outside of the sport, but the sport is constantly telling you how much you’re worth.”

Keaton is concerned that the conversations unfolding at this year’s summit are the same as those that took place in its first years. She wonders what accountability looks like for institutions whose students cycle through every four years, maybe even more with the introduction of the transfer portal.

And for the athletes who are on scholarships, many of which renew year to year, Keaton said they cannot come in and question without their money — and key to a college degree — hanging in the balance.

Love, the basketball player, has found a safe space in therapy, where she’s learned ways to cope with the racism. It’s been nice being on a team with other Black women, she said. “You’re on the court with your teammates so when one gets hurt, we all feel it.” But getting back up and reassurance from them helps, Love said. She hopes more athletes will continue to speak up. 

Basketball is what she does, not who she is. The universities are so big, she said, and they make so much money from fans that it’s important not to take the performance pressures and insults from fans personally. 

“I leave a lot of it to God,” she said, “I leave a lot of it on the court.”