The recent tragic death of former Charger’s linebacker Junior Seau should cause those who scoff at the idea of a “student-athlete” to pause and consider that a person’s development off the field in terms of their interests and passions is just as important to a player’s development on the field. There is still a lot of speculation surrounding Seau’s alleged suicide, but those close to him have made it clear that Seau was not happy. It has been suggested that the cause of his unhappiness was the result of head trauma endured throughout his playing career, coupled with the reality of having to face life after football, a game that meant everything to Seau. While the NFL and others discuss the safety issues in football that may have contributed to Seau’s death, I am more interested in a man who was facing an existential crisis at the end of his career, and feeling lost as to what to do next.
This is where college athletics comes into play. The current culture at many big name universities suggests that the only value a college athlete has is in his or her athletic achievement. Boosters don’t give money to teams that record high G.P.A.’s; they donate money to teams that win national championships. Universities lower academic standards for their high profile athletes, and grade inflation in order to keep athletes eligible continues to be a problem. In the discussion of whether or not college athletes should be paid, full-ride scholarships are being devalued and criticized as not being adequate compensation for the revenue generated by an athlete’s performance on the field. These all serve to reinforce a culture which tells young men and women who play sports to nurture their athletic talents, and an education comes second, if at all.
I do not want to suggest that Junior Seau did not receive a strong education at USC, and that the lack of such an education in someway contributed to his alleged suicide. That sort of speculation is unwarranted and unjustified without proper evidence. But what Seau’s death does remind us of is that despite the strength and resilience athletes display in the game, at the end of the day they are human, and there is one opponent that none of them can defeat – time.
So, when it does come time for a player to hang ’em up, it is helpful in transitioning from athletics to “normal life” if the person has some skill, talent, or passion outside of the game they played. This is where the responsibility of colleges, universities, and even high schools come in. These institutions are obligated to provide the skills for athletes to achieve success both on and off the field, and to maintain the same expectations of success that these institutions have has for all of their other students. It is an ethical responsibility that involves a concern for the whole person, which just so happens to be a cornerstone of the Jesuit mission.
This more holistic view should not diminish the value or importance of sports in the life of an athlete. But what it does is characterize athletics as a mode of self expression, rather than self definition. Meaning, that when an athlete is encouraged to look beyond the arena of sports in order to define him or herself, that athlete is not also being encouraged to abandon their athletic goals. Instead, he or she is being encouraged to recognize that being an athlete is an aspect of who they are as a person, but it is not the only aspect. Sports may play a more prominent role at times in an athlete’s life, especially a professional one. But, at the end of the day, they have to know that they mean more as individuals than just what they could do on the field, and we owe it to them to be sure that they know this.