The first thing you need to understand about Division I athletics is that it’s a job — and way more than a 40-hour-a-week gig at that.
Oh, college athletic departments will tell you there are time borders their athletes stay within when it comes to playing for Hometown U., but rest assured, that kind of nonsense is just for the news release. Playing sports in college, for all the glory and honor and free education it’s supposed to bring, is more accurately a grind of immense proportions.
Almost every moment — 24 hours a day, nine or 10 months a year, through four or five years, is scripted by the boss, the highly paid head coach who has plenty of hired hands (actually, hired eyes) watching every move. Miss a class, and coach knows. Miss a flight or a bus or a weightlifting session or a study hall or too many jump shots, and you might be spending Christmas, permanently, with mama back home.
And yet, for all the attention and ego boost, the loneliness and stress can be overwhelming. Most athletes, even at middling or not-even-middling programs like the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State, find themselves lost for long stretches — away from home, away from the familiar, but chained to the kind of performance-based labor that few really understand.
These are the people state Sen. Mark Moores says he is thinking about when he talks about funding mental health initiatives for the state’s Division I athletes at UNM and NMSU.
“This is a unique population,” he says, “and they are under different stresses.”
Moores, R-Albuquerque, plans to propose legislation during the next session that would fund mental health initiatives — in essence, more money for counseling within the athletic departments at UNM and NMSU. It’s something he hopes would protect the well-being of athletes in areas that aren’t protected by shoulder pads and helmets and orthopedic surgeons.
Moores, who represents a conservative section of Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, knows this might not be the easiest sell. A similar measure, after all, was vetoed a year ago by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
But Moores, who, as a former practitioner, understands the difference between the hurrah and hooey of college sports, is ready to push the boulder up the hill again. His argument is similar to others who argue on behalf of more mental health funding: Exactly how do you do a cost-benefit analysis on a human life, or a string of them?
The recent suicide of UNM football player Nahje Flowers spurred Moores — a onetime UNM offensive tackle — to recommit to the issue after his attempt to get funding for the effort failed earlier this year.
“At 18, 21, I was invincible, a machismo guy,” recalled Moores, who came to UNM in the late 1980s as a 6-foot-7, 290-pound offensive tackle. “As I look back, I wish I had these [mental health] services. No question. You don’t realize or understand it, that as a young athlete that you do need these services.”
Moores says he fully understands he’s talking about a small, boutique population within an issue that’s massive in scope: The lack of mental health services in this state and througho ut this country is criminal. It’s even worse — or at least, more problematic — for young adults who seem to have access to everything in 21st-century America except a set of ears to listen to their problems.
Moores says he’s open to folding his hopes for mental health money into a larger ask for universities as a whole.
“I’d be happy to work with anyone to get resources,” he says.
At UNM, you’ll never see a list of athletes who’ve thought about taking their own lives or have actually succeeded in doing so, but it happens too often. Flowers’ death once again brought the problem into stark relief. To hear his friends and teammates tell it, he was a guy people loved being around; a guy who could have been any player on the team, any student at the university.
And in an instant, he was gone. You have to wonder: Could someone have helped him?
Moores played football, which gets more attention than, say, women’s golf. But he wants money for anyone who’s wearing a Lobo or Aggie uniform, man or woman, because the issues are roughly the same regardless of how many people are in the stands.
He reasons these people — most of them too young to legally drink — are de facto employees of the state of New Mexico. Which is ironic. Save for their scholarship check (and a lot of athletes aren’t on full scholarship), they are unpaid. Is finding them a counselor who can get them to the age of 23 asking too much?
“They are representing the university and the state,” Moores says. “They’re representing the state of New Mexico. We’re asking them to perform on our behalf.”