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Tuesday, February 20, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

College athletics: A system of silent suffering

How much is too much?

*This column refers to assault which may be triggering. 

We don’t typically associate rape culture with college athletics. But maybe we should.

Harvey Weinstein. Larry Nassar. R. Kelly. Bill Cosby.

We have finally turned our ears to the cries of their countless victims. But the #MeToo movement is bigger than the individuals. We ignore the system that allowed these men to commit countless sexual offenses, vandalize the lives of their victims and leave countless people damaged, scarred and traumatized.

This same system serves as the foundation of college athletics.

The presence of sexual abuse in college athletics cannot be diminished or ignored, however, we often disregard the mental, verbal and physical abuse that is accepted and intricately embedded in the system. 

The system of toxic power dynamics between superiors and subordinates. 

The system that cultivates and promotes victim-blaming.

The system that places dominance in the hands of superiors, leaving their subordinates shackled to opportunity, muted and muffled by backlash, stagnant in fear of consequences, damaged and depleted by the responsibility of suppressing their truths and maintaining the well-established positive reputations of their tyrants. 

As a former student-athlete, having played Division-I basketball at two respective universities, I have witnessed the tribulations of many.

I’ve witnessed coaches mistreat my teammates because of their lifestyle preferences and sexuality. 

I’ve witnessed coaches degrade my friends.

I’ve witnessed my athletic sisters suffer performance anxiety, depression, low self-worth and suicidal thoughts while pursuing the approval of coaches.

I have suffered performance anxiety, depression and a misconstrued self-image while pursuing the approval of coaches.

The expectation is that we’ll be protected by our coaches.

They become responsible for our safety, along with our positive athletic and personal development. 

Yet they’re excused for causing our mental trauma and burdens. 

While many athletes enter programs as doe-eyed, naive freshmen, many leave as broken, scarred adults. 

Coaches must be held responsible. 

Their public personas and coaching successes render them incapable of degrading players. Their abusive acts and manipulation tactics are given the benefit of the doubt and written off as “tough love.” 

They dominate the power. 

They monopolize opportunities.

They control future recommendations. 

They hold our futures. 

The system created to serve and protect athletes has become imprisoning, leaving us exploited by the dictatorship of coaches. 

They can do no wrong, and they have the reputation and fans to support them. 

Coaches thrive in the system of exploitation, often abusing their power with little accountability, leaving athletes as voiceless puppets. 

Athletes are unable to publicly join in solidarity and discuss manipulation, verbal abuse and exploitation suffered at the hands of these trusted adults, in fear of being victim-blamed and gaslighted.

It’s a systemic issue that must be changed. 

Athletes become slaves to the system built to profit from our success, handcuffed to the fear of losing the opportunities attached to our dreams. 

Handcuffed to fear of losing our dreams –– our scholarships. 

It’s easy to neglect the rising number of athletes suffering mental health issues, because what would Saturday nights be without football? What would March be without the madness?

Because of this, the truths I speak are difficult to comprehend and accept. But in neglecting and disregarding the experiences of athletes, fans become active campaigners for the growth of a toxic system. 

Passive bystanders. 

While not all coaches abuse their power, and not every player shares the same experience, we must decide how much is too much.

The line of distinction between coaching and degrading is blurred, creating a limitless boundary of what we accept from coaches. 

Athletes withstand abuses uncommon to most people’s job experiences, because coaches’ behaviors would be considered unprofessional in any other context. 

So why is it acceptable in the context of coaching young adults, aged 18 to 22?

Within the safe boundaries of athletics, life lessons and mental toughness are inseparably united with pleasure, passion and entertainment. That’s the beauty. 

Sports are gracious and forgiving. They gently caress the spirit of athletes, remaining faithful throughout personal flaws, continuously extending opportunities for improvement, deepening the satisfaction of victories in the presence of failures and urging the existence of an athlete’s most authentic self-expression. 

They’re a safe haven and an escape.

Yet that very safety can easily be obliterated by the will of an exploitative coach. 

The misconception that coaches are responsible for producing mental toughness has devastated the experience of sports. 

Instead of experiencing the forgiving nature of sports, learning to correct mistakes and exercise self-expression, athletes become fearful of mistakes, afraid to be defined and degraded because of them. 

We become restricted by the limitations of a coach, learning to exist within the boundaries of external opinions and accepting the ceilinged success that accompanies these devaluing expectations.

We begin to suffocate.

 Underhanded comments, personal attacks and public humiliation are often disguised as “coaching.”

Instead of learning to persevere through mistakes within the context of sports, athletes are learning to silently survive the mental illnesses that result from these toxic environments.

So how much is too much?

Do we become suspicious when players express feeling targeted by a coach, verbally abused, degraded and publicly humiliated, or do we continue to attribute it to tough love and motivation?

Do we become curious when athletes no longer want to play their sports, expressing lack of passion and mental exhaustion after a season of “chasing their dreams?”

Or, is a clinical depression diagnosis the only factor capable of raising red flags? How long will we accept the limitless boundary of abuse?

Maybe the suicidal diagnosis is the definitive line. Would we all agree to be satisfied with our athletes toeing the line of life and death? 

How much is too much, and why don’t athletes have the right to decide? 

This is a call to action against a growing system we all incentivize.

Athletes incentivize the system through silence and fear. 

Parents incentivize the system through tolerance. 

Fans incentivize the system through victim blaming. 

Coaches incentivize the system through exploitation.  

Administrators incentivize the system through negligence.

We must protect our youth, the future of our workforce and the impending generations of parents, teachers, coaches and leaders. 

Don’t tell us we’re enough. Show us. 

In writing this, I stand in solidarity with my teammates and sisters who have suffered along with the many athletes who share similar experiences –– I see you and I understand you.

I hear your silence, and I stand for us all. 

Because, even in writing this, I am a former athlete still scarred by the system of toxic power dynamics, exploitation and mental abuse. 

I fear the consequences of my words. I fear victim blaming. I fear not being heard. 

But I refuse to condone the suffering of future generations.

I refuse to be muted by backlash, suffocated with fear or chained to opportunity.

I will be our voice. But I can’t be the only voice. 

Athletes: we can only create change by sharing our stories and speaking out against the system. 

Remove your shackles. 

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