Robert Romano, St. John’s University – Student-Athlete Mental Health

College athletes face lots of pressures to compete.

Robert Romano, assistant professor in the division of sports management at St. John’s University, details the importance of looking after their mental health.

Professor Robert J. Romano is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Sport Management at St. John’s University. After attending Springfield College, Professor Romano obtained his Juris Doctorate from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans, his Master’s in Sports Management from Columbia University and his LL.M. in International and Comparative Sports Law from Instituto Superior de Derecho y Economia (ISDE)/St. John’s University. Outside of academia, Professor Romano is a Connecticut/New York based judicial arbitrator and attorney, licensed in both state and federal court, whose legal practice focuses on sport law and sport and entertainment related issues.

Student-Athlete Mental Health

When the Covid-19 virus arrived in the United States in January of 2020, no one could have anticipated the devastating effect it would have on society and the mental health of individuals across various communities, including collegiate athletics.

In a 2020 NCAA survey, 19% of student-athletes felt overwhelming anxiety and another 6% were so depressed it was difficult for them to function academically and athletically. The percentage increased for athletes who were in their final year of eligibility. Financial concerns, suspension of competition, separation from family, and the lack of physical interaction with teammates were identified as main causes of distress.

These elevated levels of depression and anxiety contributed to several student-athletes taking their own lives. Explanations for why included the difficulty of balancing academics and sport. Athletes felt lost when they could not participate in an activity for which they trained for so long. Also, a commercialized NCAA puts pressure on coaches to win, which, in turn, leads to pressure being placed on student-athletes.

In response to these tragic incidents and a subsequent push from current and former student-athletes for preventative measures, the NCAA now requires member institutions to provide mental health services to athletes, and says it has consulted with experts to create best practices for care.

But is this enough? The challenges faced by student-athletes go beyond those of a typical college student. As such, we recommend the NCAA to implement and fully fund programs that redefine the concept of what mental toughness means. These include educating athletes about performance pressure and eliminating the notion that the only time to seek help is when an athlete has reached the crisis stage. It is time for the NCAA to put into practice real measures to protect the mental health of its more than 500,00 student-athletes.