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In the shadow of COVID-19, what was 2020 like for college athletes?

A recent NCAA survey provides some insight into the challenges players across the country faced.

Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

In February, the NCAA released the results of their Student-Athlete Well-Being Study, conducted last Fall to examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of college athletes. The entire report’s over 200 pages long, and it compares some of the Fall responses to what players said about the same issues in the Spring of 2020, when the pandemic was first hitting the United States. While the entirety of the study is a useful and necessary look at what life’s been like for college athletes over the last year, I’ve pulled out a few particularly interesting portions.

Athletes reported better access to medical and mental health professionals as the year went on

In the Spring 2020 survey, 80% of men and the same percentage of women said they knew “how to access a medical provider for physical health needs” in their area. Those numbers improved in the Fall survey to 86% for men and 84% for women. And where the Spring report showed only a slim majority of men (60%) and women (55%) knew “how to access mental health support” in their area, by Fall the rates had risen to 72% and 70%, respectively.

The survey didn’t ask whether or how much athletes made use of those professionals, however, nor did it indicate if the athletes who responded were satisfied with the physical and mental health care they received.

Athletes became less confident they could manage their COVID-19 exposure

While 84% of men who responded in Spring said they felt confident in managing their exposure, only 80% of men in the Fall survey said the same. The drop was steeper for women: 80% in Spring fell to 70% in Fall.

The survey didn’t ask the athletes to identify what reduced their confidence. COVID-19 case numbers were significantly higher nationwide at the time of the second survey than the first, which possibly explains some of the concern. It would have been helpful to get more information on how athletes thought their coaches and college administrators were handling the pandemic in both periods, though.

Over 40% of Division I and Division II athletes living on or near campus had to quarantine at some point in the Fall

While 27% of Division III athletes said they’d had to isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19 last Fall, those numbers jumped to 44% of the Division I respondents and 43% of those in Division II. Most of those athletes didn’t test positive, however; 14% of D-I athletes and 15% of D-II respondents said they’d ever gotten a positive test result. And the survey didn’t ask for any details about isolation periods, so we have no perspective on how athletes thought quarantines were handled.

Nutritional needs became more challenging for athletes in the Fall

Players were asked whether they had access to enough food to meet their needs each day and if they had readily available healthy food options. In Spring, 88% of men’s sports participants and 95% of those from women’s sports who responded said yes to the first. By Fall, however, only 83% of the men and 87% of the women still said they had enough access to food. The second question saw a similar drop. Men’s sports respondents went from 76% having healthy food available to 69%, while women’s sports participants dipped from 82% to 67%.

These responses were also broken down into three categories based on where the respondent is living: On campus, off campus but in a college town, and in another town. Despite theoretically being closer to school nutrition resources, athletes living on campus reported the biggest problems with access to sufficient food and healthy options. Only 58% of on-campus athletes said they could rely on getting healthy options, nearly 20 points lower than those who lived off campus but in a college town.

Mental health issues eased but were felt more acutely by women

For most of the categories covered in the surveys, fewer athletes reported repeated mental health concerns in Fall. Sleep difficulties, loneliness, and sadness saw significant drops over the course of the year for men and women. Women’s sports athletes, however, reported more mental health issues in the Spring than athletes in men’s sports, with little reduction in those gaps in Fall.

NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study (Fall 2020)

What caused some of these mental health challenges? 48% of the women’s sports respondents listed academic worries. While that was also the top cause identified by athletes playing men’s sports, only 34% of those respondents said school was negatively impacting them. COVID-19 health concerns were a stressor for 36% of women but just 22% of men. A roughly equal percentage of men and women reported their mental health had been negatively impacted by lack of access to their sport and financial worries (one-third and one-quarter of both groups, respectively.)

Most of the mental health stressors were reported in equal percentages across racial lines, with one major exception

Breaking the Fall survey responses down by the race of the respondents, academic worries were the highest-reported sources of stress in each group (Black, Latinx, White, and Other), ranging from 42 to 47%. About a third of the athletes in each racial demographic cited COVID-19 health concerns as a mental health challenge, and a similar number pointed to lack of access to their sport.

But when asked whether “personal experiences of racism or racial trauma” negatively impacted their mental health, the groups answered very differently. 31% of Black athletes said they had been impacted by racism or racial trauma, while none of the other groups had a response rate above 14%.

The phrasing of this question was somewhat obtuse, and the report didn’t go into any follow-up items. It would have been helpful to know whether these experiences were happening on campus, or in the athletic programs these athletes participated in, or in the communities adjacent to universities.

Perhaps the least-surprising finding: Athletes worried about their family financial situation were much more likely to report mental health problems

Athletes who said they felt positive or very positive about their family’s financial state reported plenty of stress in the Fall. 35% of this group said they felt overwhelmed, 26% were mentally exhausted, 18% had problems sleeping, and an equal percentage felt overwhelming anxiety.

But among athletes who felt negative or very negative about family finances, those same mental health issues were far more prevalent. 64% reported feeling overwhelmed, 54% experienced mental exhaustion, 45% had sleep difficulties, and 41% dealt with overwhelming anxiety.

Whether or not the NCAA admits to it, those numbers expose the human cost of the Association’s stubborn fight to keep college athletes from getting paid for their talents. Every dime they didn’t get from television contracts or weren’t allowed to earn by capitalizing off their own name, image, and likeness rights adds up. It’s not just lost income. It’s additional stress and difficulty for them and their families, and that only became more amplified in the middle of a pandemic that put an incredible financial strain on many working households.

Again, these aren’t the only pieces of data contained in the final report, and I’d encourage you to give it a read to get a fuller sense of what 2020 was like for college athletes.