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Making sense of the NFL draft during a global pandemic

A mental health expert examines the presence of sports amid COVID-19 crisis

Because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the NFL scrapped its glitzy plans to have this year’s draft in Las Vegas. There will be no grand productions and no large crowds. But the show, albeit considerably scaled-down, will go on, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell leading a virtual event beginning Thursday. The NFL has mandated that teams and potential draft picks adhere to strict local and state social distancing guidelines throughout the three-day draft.

Still, there’s an ongoing debate about whether the league should have postponed the draft, considering the suffering occurring nationwide. T.M. Robinson-Mosley understands the issues shaping the discussion.

A sports mental health expert, Robinson-Mosley believes that although efforts to slow the spread of the virus are necessary, it’s also true that the lack of sporting events due to social distancing has contributed to high levels of stress among many. As is the case with most things during this health crisis, the issue of whether to move forward with the draft this week, she says, is complicated.

There’s a large amount of grief and loss right now in terms of thinking about sports. People love sports. People need sports. And not only is there this uncertainty about how long this is going to last and how long we’re going to be without sports, but there’s also the impact of thinking about the sports industry and all of the people employed by the sports industry.

Collectively, we are in a crisis. We are in chaos on a global scale. And that’s not just figuratively, it’s literally. The human cost of this, in addition to the hit on the economy, has really created a great deal of collective anxiety. When we think about the grief and loss, in particular, and how anxiety is connected to that, a lot of it is connected to the loss of control, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Those things are exacerbated when you don’t really have an end in sight. We have no end date.

In the wake of COVID-19, I’m spending most of my time helping elite athletes and sports organizations address the impact of uncertainty in their personal and professional lives. The abrupt cancellation of games, social distancing and unstructured time is a potential recipe for significant mental health issues for athletes and the professionals who support them. Elite athletic competition is inherently stressful. However, the absence of sports could potentially make athletes more susceptible to mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.

You think about the athletes. These are their jobs, and they have a very short time in them. There’s a far shorter kind of peak, in terms of not only thinking about your earnings as a pro athlete, but just the time you have to play. It’s a flash in the pan. You get a few years, if you’re lucky, to really make a dent and an impact in sports. It can feel fragile, in terms of the time you have to accomplish what you hope to accomplish.

One of my clients is a football player participating in the 2020 NFL draft. Like many athletes, his life has been drastically altered by COVID-19 during a critical time in his athletic career. Separated from most of his teammates and close friends, he struggled to manage anxiety and depressive symptoms in the months leading up to the draft. According to the client, he felt unmotivated, isolated and overwhelmed. He expressed that he was too ‘stressed out’ to focus on training, and he failed to work out for weeks.

As a college athlete, he was accustomed to a busy schedule, but without a routine, he struggled to manage his time. In therapy, he identified that his goals were to ‘get back on track’ with training before the draft and to feel less anxious. Together, we created a detailed weekly schedule, complete with established times for workouts, self-care and virtual social time with supportive family members, friends and coaches. After engaging in counseling, he successfully reached his goal of getting back on track before the draft and reported a significant improvement in his mental health.

I work with organizations and institutions to build specialized mental health programs for athletes. In the wake of COVID-19, teams and organizations are grappling with challenges to virtually provide mission-critical resources to athletes and the professionals who support them.

For the pro leagues, you’re thinking about how to keep the momentum going and keep people engaged with some world-class brands. And for the athletes, the college players who have worked so hard for so many years to reach the point where they have put themselves in a position to be drafted, that’s a moment they want to experience. Obviously, you can understand why they would want the chance to achieve that dream, under any circumstances.

So the draft, from the business end and for the athletes who deserve the opportunity to experience the moment, it makes sense. Also in terms of thinking about the impact of sports, bringing folk together from all walks of life, that makes sense. And giving some folk something to enjoy and engage in, during what in our lifetime is something we could have never imagined happening, is very important. We’re all going through something that is just tremendously difficult. So it all makes sense in terms of thinking of it that way.

The challenge for me is the human cost of everything going on right now. And I’m not just talking about the hit to the economy, obviously, but the loss of life. Even with no audiences, gatherings [to watch the draft] could still put folk at risk. We have to remember that we need to focus on the [daily] developments and what the medical community and experts are saying around the pandemic. We have to keep making informed decisions.

The NFL, the NCAA, the NBA, etc., all of these sports organizations have really yielded to the experts. They were really on the front lines of shutting things down. Even before our nation had responded, in terms of shutting things down nationally, and states doing it state by state, the sports leagues were leading. They’ve been incredibly thoughtful about the health of the athletes and the personnel and the production that it takes to put on [big sports events]. But there are still going to be questions about any big sports event, and definitely as we start thinking about what it looks like coming out of this and what they will look like in the foreseeable future.

Liner Notes

Dr. T.M. Robinson-Mosley, a part-time faculty member at Spelman College, is a counseling psychologist and licensed therapist who serves as a sports mental health expert. She is the owner and managing partner of Mosley and Associates Consulting, LLC, which is the umbrella brand for counseling and psychological services, sports consulting, diversity and inclusion training and social impact consulting. For 13 years, Dr. Robinson-Mosley has served in leadership positions across higher education, which include roles in the Ivy League, large Division I institutions, Division III liberal arts, Hispanic-serving institutions, women’s colleges and historically black colleges and universities. She also serves as a subject matter expert for the NCAA, NBA and NFL Players Association.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.