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SEC commissioner Greg Sankey addresses the crowd on the first day of the 2019 SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, on July 15, 2019. Sankey talked about the upcoming football season as well as the accomplishments of the SEC in the past football season. (Photo/Daniela Rico)

HOOVER, Ala. — Among talk of personnel, traditions and rule changes, mental health stood out as an unexpected topic at the 2019 SEC Media Days.

In his opening press conference, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey made it a point to focus on the topic. 

Sankey, after talking about the possible legalization of sports betting in Georgia, said the pressure on athletes under that scenario would be immense. Whether a field goal is missed, a three-pointer is made or a pitch is called a strike, these situations would be even more high-pressure if exacerbated by gambling on collegiate sports, Sankey said. 

“If you were part of the student-athlete advisory committee meeting in the SEC ten years ago, you would have commonly discussed campus parking issues,” Sankey said. “Now, at every meeting, our student-athletes themselves ask to discuss issues around mental health.”

After Monday’s media day concluded, Florida head coach Dan Mullen made an appearance on The Paul Finebaum Show to talk about Florida’s upcoming season. During the show, the topic arose, and Mullen proposed a possible cause of this stress — social media. 

In the spotlight

The topic came up before the Florida coach was on the radio. During his press conference, Mullen was asked to speak about mental health issues.

Mullen emphasized that college athletes are at a transformative point in their lives, between adolescence and adulthood, and college is a time of great development and maturation.

“A lot of guys, it’s the first time ever being away from home. You’re growing and finding out about yourself,” Mullen said in his press conference. “And a lot of these guys are having to do it under a spotlight with a lot of people watching them and critiquing everything they do.” 

The idea that athletes are “under a spotlight,” whether from the media or fans on Twitter, was a consistent sentiment among the coaches answers regarding the subject. 

“My big thing on it is, when do they ever get a break? When does a kid now ever get to be a kid? When is he allowed to make a mistake without somebody wanting to kick him out, throw him out or whatever?” Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said. 

As concerned as the coaches are, the players were less impassioned when talking about what is, after all, their mental health. The players opted for more general answers, stressing that their focus is on their play and academics, and they have the resources they need if mental health problems arise. 

The University of Georgia’s Jake Fromm focused on hunting and fishing, his unique escape from the pressures of the national spotlight. The third-year quarterback said it allows him to escape from the spotlight and slow things down.

Fromm went on and talked about how head coach Kirby Smart is readily available when needed. 

“He’s always available. He’s always there to talk,” Fromm said. “He’s a guy who I can text at 11 o’clock at night, or I can go in and talk to him in a meeting at 3 o’clock in the morning.” 

And when asked about the accessibility athletes at Georgia have to psychologists, Fromm said help is easily available, something Commissioner Sankey took pride in during his speech. 

“[Mental health treatment] is definitely available,” Fromm said. “Anytime we need it, all we have to do is ask.”

Sankey also spoke about how the power five conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — instituted new standards for access to mental health counseling for athletes earlier this year. The SEC has consistently met or exceeded those standards according to Sankey.

A long time coming

In his opening press conference, Sankey said talks about mental health “represent not a ripple of change, but a wave of new reality.” Sankey referenced Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, and how he has also spoken out about mental health among NBA athletes.  

Sankey also referenced studies about Generation Z and its open attitudes towards a range of topics, including mental health. 

While football coaches and players are often more synonymous with physical toughness and not emotional availability, most acknowledged the importance of the issue when asked. 

Fisher, speaking quickly with a raised voice, gave one of the most passionate answer regarding the problem. He said he has been trying to push a movement to recognize mental health as a serious problem among collegiate athletes for years. A message that, until recently, was not taken seriously. 

“It’s the biggest problem; I said this ten years ago in a meeting one time in the ACC,” Fisher said. “And people said, well, they kind of laughed.”

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