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Bending Athletes Until They Break

The life of an athlete is assumed to be all glamour where everything comes easy because of their gifted talent.

I think it’s important that people become aware that this is not the case. Being an athlete requires tireless work, grit, patience, and both physical and mental toughness. But there are other stresses that get added in… things that we don’t see on the field, in the gym, or in workouts, and support for those stresses should be provided by the NCAA.

Unfortunately, young athletes do not get the support that they need which leads them to eventually break. A recent example of this is 2012 United States Olympic Medalist, McKayla Maroney.

She was amazing at what she did on the gymnastic floor and made a memorable Olympic run. But the troubling news recently has been in what happened to Maroney both on and off the floor.

Maroney was put through a terrible situation when it was revealed earlier this year that her physical trainer, Larry Nassar, had been physically abusing her for years.

Nassar was obviously a sick individual who took a broken and terrible system and used it to manipulate those around him to satisfy his perverse desires. He did this not once, not twice, but hundreds of times to a number of victims. Maroney has said that it came to the point that every time she saw Nassar, he would molest her.

Not only did she have to deal with the stress of abuse by Nassar, but her coaches would also make her starve in order to keep her figure.

Training for the Olympics is no easy task, but training long hours without being fed makes it almost impossible.

Maroney would be starved by her coaches in order to keep her looking as skinny as possible for her gymnastic routines. Constantly working your body to exhaustion while not refueling can put an athlete in a miserable and desperate situation.

So the question is, “Why was no one ‘there’ for Maroney?”
The answer is that the powers that be have no need to support or protect athletes. Protecting athletes is their last priority as long as they keep their program winning.

The Jerry Sandusky issue reflects this “blind” effect. Sandusky abused many different children while coaching at Penn State, yet the issue never reared its head up while the program was being successful even though people had their suspicions. It took a group effort by victims to bring attention to the molestation months (even years) after the incidents happened.

The gymnastic training world and the Penn State embarrassment have proven that the athletic system is broken.

As long as there are others that can take the athlete’s place and the “program” continues to win medals and championships, then everything is aces.

The collegiate student-athlete is the cover image of this issue. The athlete wakes up at five in the morning for weights, goes to three classes, goes to a six-hour practice, and then studies until midnight for their test the next day. All of this for no pay, but for the opportunity to chip away towards a degree or be lucky enough to play professionally.

The amount of responsibilities put on these teenagers can absolutely bury a person in the stress. I know this because not only have I seen it happen to others, but I’ve had it happen to me.

Investing 18 to 20 hours a day into anything is stressful. But what happens when one of those things you are investing so much time on has a failure along the way? You give up three runs in one inning in a scrimmage. You shoot 10 percent from the field in a scrimmage. You miss a tackle in a scrimmage. You fail a test.

The real issue isn’t that you failed that task; it’s an issue because when you have that much invested in something it feels like there is nothing left without it. It feels like the world just ended and all that crap you’ve had to deal with up to this point was not worth it.

You’re not getting a salary for a performance or your grades. You can’t market yourself off your success. So that success is all you have, if you’re lucky enough to be at a program that will acknowledge that success.

That is where we are failing athletes as a sporting world.

Athletes aren’t being provided with a way to handle all the stress their athletic programs are handing them. Instead of helping them with it, the NCAA has strict transfer guidelines and easy cutting guidelines.

You’re on a one-year contract every year as a student-athlete and it’s very easy for a program to let you go, but it can be very difficult for you to let the program go.

The system is built for the sports programs to use and abuse athletes until they are either burned out and then replace them. Or if the athlete doesn’t want that abuse, they cut them and replace them.

It’s a broken system that doesn’t put the athlete’s priorities first and we are starting to see the devastating effects it can have on those athletes.

McKayla Maroney has to forever live with all the abuse she had throughout her gymnastic career. Many football players have to live with head and other traumatic injuries that last a lifetime.

We cannot undo these things that have happened to these athletes, but we can accept that there is a problem. Once we fully accept there is a problem, we can take steps towards addressing the issue.

What happened to McKayla Maroney, the other Nassar victims, the children at Penn State, the everyday student-athlete, let’s work to make sure it never happens again.

Alex Strizak is a student-athlete at PLNU.


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