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Fights, Black Male College Athletes & Trauma

Over the past several weeks, several fights have unfolded during college football contests and skirmishes before and during collegiate basketball games. Several sports observers and journalists have wondered why the uptick in “fisticuffs”. Is this just male college athlete aggression 2.0? Were college football athletes stressed out because their seasons were coming to an end? Or is there something to the actuality that almost every college athlete initially involved in the brawls were Black?


For about 20 years, sports observers and the media have periodically scratched their heads over why Black male college athletes consistently engage in self-destructive behaviors. There are no excuses for some of the felonies male college athletes commit, such as domestic and sexual violence against women, but this commentary is not about those behaviors. With today’s 24-hour sports media cycle bad behavior by college athletes brings public shame, impacts their non-sport employability, and can abruptly end their athletic careers. Further, is not incomprehensible to think that some college coaches are imposing fines on college athletes (from their cost of attendance stipends) for their bad behavior. So, why does it seem like fights with the opposing team, practice skirmishes, and even brawls between athletes and coaches appear to be more frequent?


What about post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)?


To understand this line of question we have to go back in time and understand that Black children experience more trauma than their counterparts in every other racial category and many never deal with trauma before they confront the myriad of triggers on college campus and in collegiate sports.


Trauma is an emotional response to an event that is deeply distressing. Traumatic events include homicide, domestic violence, divorce, abuse, neglect, sexual assault, dysfunctional families, and substance abuse. There is acute, chronic, and complex trauma – not to mention the historical and race-based traumas – which both come with their own set of cumulative and collective negative attributes. The aforementioned events can also represent complex trauma because they effect individuals, their families, and their communities – in other words trauma impacts their entire environment. We do not have time to get into the slavery, indentured servitude, Jim Crow (the old and the new), racism, discrimination, mass incarceration, and police-involved shootings and other macro-level issues that impact Black male trauma. If Black children are more prone to trauma, in particular chronic (i.e., persistent) trauma, then it is plausible the recent uptick in aggression by Black male athletes may be related to post-traumatic stress disorders.


Yet in some college sports circles sports, athletes, in particular male athletes, are socialized to believe mental health disorders are just episodes that you work through and are unlike physical injuries that are carefully treated. When post-traumatic stress disorders are associated with the military combat, death, dismemberment, and detonations it is more easily understood. We do not put as much stock in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) Black males suffer. However, when Black males experience trauma, it impacts their neurodevelopment via the old brain which regulates their survival functions. In response to trauma, the old brain send signals leading to the release of Cortisol (Adrenaline) and Opioids (natural morphine) which provides energy and eliminates pain. Then, the hippocampus encodes and consolidates the trauma into memory. That is the cliff notes version, but the take away is that trauma biologically based – it is not something that Black males can just get over.


Speaking of Black males and sports, let’s couple the biologically based fight or flight response caused by trauma with what famed sociologist Elijah Anderson refers to “street codes” or a set of informal rules governing Black males’ interpersonal public behavior. Meaning when the safely of a Black male is threatened they will not be “punked”, will keep it “100”, and will respond in masculine, independent, and aggressive ways. The reality that Black males will not be viewed as weak and will respond to threatening behavior with violence is embedded in their consciousness and the American psyche as it pertains to sports.


So, we have Black male student-athletes, who grow up in parentless places, communities with contemptable educational systems, neighborhoods where shootings are commonplace, in kitchens where there is no food, and other spaces where there is no hope and lots of “street codes”. Then athletic departments remove these Black males from at-risk communities and transport them to places that have little or no support to help address these deficiencies. In fact, there are some aspects of their academic and athletic college environment that might re-traumatize them. While in the college courses they discuss the latest police involved shooting and they think about their best friend being gunned down. Or their coach yells at them and they are reminded of getting beat by their foster parent, by a belt or worse. Or a White faculty member infers that they are academically inferior because they are just here to play ball and they think about that teacher who said they would amount to nothing. So, just because Black male athletes earn scholarships to predominately White institutions and historically Black colleges does not mean that the trauma they experienced as children and adolescents suddenly subsides.


Addressing trauma among Black male student-athletes, requires a Trauma Informed Care (TIC) perspective or that we understand it is not about “What Black males did?” - it’s about “What happened to the Black males?” Coaches and athletic departments, if they want their Black male athletes to have a clearer pathway to academic and athletic excellence, should find active ways to help Black male college athletes with PTSD. The likelihood that a significant portion of Black male student-athletes, who are competing for Division I athletic program, are experiencing PTSD is real. This reality is evident in the recent wave of fights in college sports and suggests that it is critical for the current and future well-being of Black male college athletes that a) they understand the impact of traumatic experiences, b) that they explore the need for some form of therapy to address any lingering effects, and that c) the coaches, trainers, sport social workers, sport psychologists, athletic academic counselors, and sport administrators understand TIC and how Black male college athletes might benefit from TIC. Typically, athletic departments do not want to deal with complex, qualitative issues like behavioral health, and because they do not it is impacting their sports teams with high numbers of Black males – in subtle and seemingly inexplicable ways. The only way to “clean things up”, from an athletic standpoint and to “heal” from mental behavioral health standpoint is to truly deal with the complexities of Black male trauma and PTSD. If not, then we will continue to see the fights and skirmishes that have become commonplace on ESPN – and it’s quite possible we might see something worse might scroll across the ESPN ticker…


Emmett L. Gill, Jr., PhD, MSW, is the Director of Student-Athlete Wellness and Personal Development at the University of Texas at Austin and the Chief Executive Officer of ASWIS. Dr. Gill recently presented on Black Males and Trauma at the Region III/IV Conference for the National Association of Athletic Academic Advisors (N4A).

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