Conference Realignment Poses Mental and Physical Risks to College Athletes

With big money reshaping college sports, new research reveals the toll travel takes on college athletes' academics, social life, and mental health.
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Following his experience as a journalist — including 10 years with the Associated Press — Dean Golembeski managed communication departments at public and private colleges. Dean has written about higher education, politics, sports, and more, and has b...
Published on August 22, 2022
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  • The Big Ten Conference will add the University of Southern California and UCLA to its ranks in 2024, creating a 16-team superconference.
  • College officials and members of Congress have clamorred for the NCAA to do more to protect athletes' mental health.
  • A study shows that travel disrupted athletes' ability to engage with classmates, family, friends, and significant others.

As college conferences add new members and spread from coast to coast in pursuit of bigger audiences and more money, they need to invest more resources to protect the physical and mental well-being of athletes, says a professor who has researched the impact of travel on student-athletes.

"I think that with the rumors about the amount of money that is going to be generated due to these expanded superconferences, universities and athletic directors really need to invest in the athlete," Amanda Paule-Koba, a professor in the sport management program at Bowling Green State University, told BestColleges.

Paule-Koba pointed to news reports that the Big Ten Conference will add the University of Southern California and UCLA to its ranks in 2024, creating a 16-team superconference that will stretch from the East Coast to the West Cost. It will rival the Southeastern Conference (SEC), which also has announced plans to create a widespread, 16-team conference. Both conferences will require teams to travel extensively.

"They need to get them more academic services, more learning specialists, more mental health professionals because now you're away from campus even more and the stress of maintaining your athletic performance and your academic performance and trying to feel like you can sleep and have some sort of social life . . . is going to be an even larger burden on these athletes," she said.

Travel Negatively Impacts Performance In Classroom, on Field

The well-being of students, particularly their mental health, is a hot topic of discussion among college officials and members of Congress, who are clamoring for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to do more to protect athletes. As conferences expand, the physical and mental health of student-athletes is likely to become more of a priority, especially since it is included in the NCAA's mission statement.

In her research, Paule-Koba, along with three of her undergraduate students, looked at the effect travel has on football players from the Big Ten and Big 12 Conferences, as well as hockey players from the Hockey East and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association conferences. A total of 108 athletes participated in the study in 2019, and the researchers published their findings in the Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education in December 2021.

Based on their work, Paule-Koba said it was possible to make some generalizations about how all college athletes feel about travel.

"Overall, a lot of the individuals in the sample really enjoyed the elements of travel that included going to new places, seeing different campuses, and playing in different facilities," she said.

But more importantly, the results indicated that most of the athletes felt the travel had a negative impact on their athletic performance, academics, and personal relationships, especially when they were traveling to different time zones.

"They spoke about not feeling like they were performing at their best because their routine was gone and they were not in the prime element that they were used to, in terms of they went to sleep at a certain time, they woke up at a certain time. They have their routine to get them ready. Now everything is shifted," she said.

Travel also required athletes to miss classes and tests and to occasionally deal with professors annoyed by their absences.

"At times they said they didn't feel as though some professors understood that while they are on the road, they're not necessarily able to do as much work," Paule-Koba said. "They obviously have to. They are required to. Some sports will send academic tutors or a learning specialist alongside them to help. But when you're missing the classroom, sometimes they say, 'I have to learn this on my own,' and that's hard."

Travel also disrupted athletes' ability to engage with classmates, family, friends, and significant others, especially when in a different time zone from their university or college, the researchers found.

"They weren't able to join specific organizations, or they had a much harder time with group work or group projects because there wasn't really time throughout their season to meet with group members or they were only available to meet at very odd times that were not necessarily convenient for other members of the group," the professor noted.

Colleges, Conferences Must Invest in Athletes’ Mental Health and Wellness

Paule-Koba is hoping to do more extensive, follow-up research after the Big Ten and other conferences expand and begin competition. In the meantime, she advises prospective students to carefully consider the impact that travel will have on their well-being and their future careers. She adds that parents need to be involved in that process.

"What are you doing next? And who has the best tools to help set you up for success? Not just within your sport but lifelong," she asked.

As for college presidents, athletic directors, and conference leaders, Pale-Koba said their mission is clear.

"We know from the research, we know from just watching ESPN that mental health in athletes is something that a lot of schools are starting to talk about more. But talking about it isn't enough. If you are going to be making billions of dollars, you need to invest that money back in the people who are generating that money for you, not more multimillion-dollar coaching contracts [but] actually back into helping the athletes be successful," she said.

"If we're not investing in helping them with their mental health and wellness, if we're not investing and helping them be academically successful so they can be prepared for life after sport, these universities are then failing their athletes, and they need to remember to keep athletes at the center of the discussion, not money," she said.