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Bryce Gowdy, Georgia Tech Athletics & Why Every Athletic Department Needs a Social Worker

By: Emmett L. Gill, Jr., PhD, MSW, LMSW

I hesitated to write anything about the January 2020 suicide of Bryce Gowdy in part because of my passion for mental health and wellness in college athletic spaces combined with my belief that we do not do enough to help vulnerable college athletes. In 2016, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) put forth a prescription for Best Practices in Mental Health with athletes – yet many schools fail to meet two or more of the four recommended principles.

The first principle is the Clinical Licensure of Practitioners Providing Mental Health Care. I believe that mental health professionals, from all disciplines, can contribute to the well-being of college athletes from licensed professional counselors, to sports psychologists, to clinical psychologists, to psychiatrists to clinical sports psychologists. However, I believe this tragedy is evidence that every Division I athletic department should have at least one full-time licensed social worker. Yet, of the Power Five conferences, only 10 athletic departments employ a social worker and the discipline prevalent in 31 of 88 athletic department mental health positions is not on the 2016 list of practitioners recommended by the NCAA.

The late Mr. Gowdy was an incoming college athlete who was homeless and reportedly hearing voices. How is it that the Georgia Tech’s football and/or mental health staff did not know? Georgia Tech has at least five football personnel dedicated to recruiting and two mental health professionals and no one knew Gowdy was severely at-risk? Maybe that is because Division I football player development and recruiting personnel are not equipped to identify and/or deal with the covert, systemic, and institutional issues that impact athletes mental health prior to their arrival on college campuses. Social workers not only provide clinical services but also case management services, full mental health evaluations, and welfare investigations – no other helping professional working in college sports possesses that type of range when it comes to mental health. Social workers not only understand how to identify and treat mental health disorders, but they are also extensively trained to work with the systems designed to help the homeless, mentally ill and individuals in need of public assistance. Mr. Gowdy and his family could have used a sport social worker – so could Georgia Teach athletics.

The third principle in the NCAA Best Practices in Mental Health with athletes is a Pre-Participation Mental HealthScreening and according to reports Mr. Gowdy committed suicide six days before he was due to report to Georgia Tech. Could a pre-participation screening have prevented Gowdy’s death?

Only God knows, because even when a screening is completed athletes are untruthful. However, that’s not an excuse for not trying. College athletes, especially our Black, Latino, and White rural athletes need screening and background checks – whether they are at-risk or not. Basketball and football programs know everything about these kids physical well-being from the day they start recruiting them, but do not know, or choose not to know, about their mental health and wellness – the person and their environment. That is unfortunate because the research one institutions that house these lucrative athletic programs have the resources to help these young men and women overcome many of the life challenges they face – that is not athletic department and institutional exploitation – that’s athletic department and institutional neglect.

The Bryce Gowdy tragedy provides us with three lessons 1) NCAA member institutions need to be held accountable for the NCAA Best Practices in Mental Health for Athletes, 2) we need to realize there is more to mental health and wellness than clinical practice and 3) every Division I athletic department would benefit from employing a full-time social worker - because we do more than take people’s kids – we save them.

Rest in Peace Bryce Gowdy.

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