Student-athletes were already confused about their identity. Then coronavirus cancellations hit.
The Big 10. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Ivy League.
In the weeks leading up to the fall semester, college athletic conferences announced canceled seasons like gongs of a death toll.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Northeast-10 Conference. The New England Small College Athletic Conference. Division I, II, and III.
Stands without fans, a season without any seasons, and—most poetically—student-athletes without athletics.
When I received my cross-country coach’s email starting with the foreboding words, “Bad news, guys,” I immediately felt the immense loss of the ability to compete, to break my personal records, and to showcase the work I put in over the summer. But to me, the most overwhelming loss was not athletics itself; it was the feeling of being an athlete.
As an NCAA All-American, I closely identify with my sport. Normally, my sport dictates my schedule, time commitments, and even my mood, which sometimes depends on how practice goes.
Since my identity is so intimately bound up with my sport, this semester I feel disoriented on a campus that looks exactly the same. People won’t know me in conjunction with my latest win. I won’t be introduced with my sport – my de facto surname – attached to my name. My schedules won’t be defined in terms of championship dates. And, most unsettling of all, I am training without a single competition on my calendar.
I don’t think I’m alone here: in the climate of modern college sports, student-athletes are already predisposed to a crisis of identity, and the coronavirus cancellations are bringing it to a head.
A quick look at data surveying NCAA athletes reinforces this point. An NCAA GOALS study revealed that less than half of DI female student-athletes frequently socialize with non-athletes, suggesting that student-athletes’ social lives are often isolated to their sport. But student-athletes have a lot on their plate beyond their social lives and their sport, with only a slim majority of student-athletes reporting feeling able to keep up with academics while in season. The commitment to one’s sport goes beyond the season, though. The vast majority of student-athletes reported spending as much or more time on athletic activities in the off-season than in-season. This suggests that one’s sport is, for many students, an activity that defines the entirety of their college career. It isn’t a mere extracurricular activity—athletics often defines the life of a student-athlete as a whole.
It’s no surprise, then, that student-athletes are struggling to see themselves apart from the rigor of a season. But perhaps, more than anything, the coronavirus cancellations are asking student-athletes to see ourselves apart from our sports. If that is difficult—if student-athletes cannot sit comfortably with ourselves apart from our sports—then perhaps something is very deeply wrong in how student-athletes (myself included) see ourselves.
There’s a certain comfort in knowing that the question of how one sees his or her identity is not just the dilemma of a student-athlete; it is a human problem. Student-athletes, in a way, are invited into solidarity with the rest of the world during a global pandemic. It’s a world that has lost jobs, opportunities, semesters, and even family members and loved ones. We’re all learning how to be resilient.
After the identities that we found in our bodies, work, sports, or school were stripped away by the coronavirus cancellations, we have an opportunity to come to terms with a radical understanding of ourselves. As these things that we do dissipate, we are invited to come to a more robust and rich understanding of who we are.
Fortunately, resilience builds upon resilience. We see this already in athletics: the team that gets up after defeat time and time again has a kind of weather-worn grit that propels them to victory. The reality is, every athlete becomes a former athlete at some point. In the future, when athletes find themselves without their sport—whether because of an injury in college, the end of a college career, or even after a professional career—they will be able to draw on their growth during this difficult time. By learning resilience through COVID-19, athletes will have the capacity to fully see themselves, not simply as athletes without a sport, but as people who have value and purpose, whether they are able to compete in their sport or not.
Let’s be clear, there is no room for false optimism here. I am not saying that the silver lining of the cancellations takes away how hard it actually is. Rather, I want to validate every student-athlete’s disappointment of what they lost this season and encourage them to really enter into whatever they are wrestling with. We need to recognize how hard this is, and lean into that struggle, and learn from it.
After the pandemic is over, I hope that I will be able to know myself more deeply than accolades can ever express. I hope that athletes like me will never stop this pursuit of our identities— beyond athletics, beyond merits, and beyond how we are seen on our campuses. I hope, and I think that I have good reason for my hope, that this season of cancellations will bear a more resilient generation of young adults. That is a silver lining worth fighting for.
About the Author
Anna Wilgenbusch is a student-athlete at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. She uses her dual passions for running and journalism to encourage student-athletes to integrate into their wider campus communities. Anna is an NCAA DIII cross-country All-American and was the USCAA individual national cross-country champion in 2019. Anna also competes in long-distance track and holds her university’s 5k school record. When not running, studying, or writing for her campus paper and Trey Athletes, Anna can most likely be found playing violin or baking. She calls St. Paul, MN her home.