Officials worry about student-athletes' mental health

  • Dr. Preston Wolin

    Dr. Preston Wolin

Updated 11/12/2020 5:39 PM

With it looking like the high school basketball season will be put on hold, one concern from coaches, athletic directors and medical professionals is the effect on the mental health of student-athletes.

Reports are out of a rise in teenagers' anxiety, depression and substance abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. How much can directly be tied to the cancellation of sports is still being studied, but many are worried that shutting down sports will have long-term effects.


"I'm hearing and our principals on our board are hearing, our students are troubled," IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said. "We get reports of kids suffering. All of this wraps up into deep concerns about re-engaging kids."

It's one of the main reasons the IHSA decided to play its basketball season as scheduled -- only to be contradicted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health, who advised schools not play a winter basketball season, which a majority of schools are doing.

In search of more data

That's to the frustration of many, including Dr. Preston Wolin.

Wolin, an orthopedic surgeon who has served as team doctor at numerous schools the past 30 years including DePaul University and St. Rita High School, is an original member of the IHSA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.

He's quite concerned about the mental health of student-athletes.

"Should this be a factor in determining of when sports are being played?" Wolin said. "Of course it needs to be. And it needs to be weighed against the risk of disease transmission.

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"What is actual risk to kids playing basketball? Week in and week out kids are playing basketball. The overwhelming number are playing without masks. Where is the data of the disease transmission?"

Wolin has worked with the SMAC for 20-plus years. He's been an advocate of playing high school sports more safely, from recent efforts to start a pitch count in baseball to the decision years ago to stop playing playoff football games on a Wednesday/Saturday schedule because of injuries.

If the IDPH provided evidence that playing basketball leads to COVID transmission, Wolin would change his stance. But he's not seen that -- in fact, a survey from the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association showed the opposite is true.

That and a lack of communication with the state's decision-makers is disappointing.

"The reason we are most frustrated is the Illinois Department of Public Health will not have a dialogue with us," said Wolin, who has been trying to work though deputy governor Jesse Ruiz. "We have tried to get through (to the governor), we can't get around the assistant governor who has taken the position, he has asked Anderson how many kids need to get COVID and possibly die before the IHSA will stop playing sports. Words to that effect. That goes back to the summer time, and it hasn't changed.


"Sports are vital to our society. They are vital to our kids. There are people who look at sports as a dalliance, as a luxury. They are not. Go back and read what Walt Whitman said about baseball and society. This didn't happen yesterday. We are talking 150 years ago. We have to make room for our kids to play sports."

Fall mitigations worked

That's just what Kaneland athletic director Dave Rohlman experienced first hand this fall.

With the IHSA allowing a few fall sports deemed low-risk like golf and cross country, Rohlman saw how much sports meant to students' well-being.

"We hosted a boys golf regional and cross country regional and put a lot of mitigation in place," Rohlman said. "To see those kids be able to compete, you could see on a kid's face just how much it means to them to be able to participate. I just don't think we can discount that and say it's not as important as you think. Well yeah, it is that important. That mental health thing is extremely important."

Anderson got some feedback from parents this fall and is hearing from more now that it looks like the basketball season might not happen, at least as originally scheduled.

"I can't tell you the number of emails I've got from parents throughout the fall and that (mental health) is a concern," Anderson said. "That has not been left on deaf ears by me. However this plays out we will continue to have this concern for our students."

Future concerns

Wolin has another worry, and that's how the younger generation will look at its leaders.

"When you talk about the psychology of this, think about the credibility of our elected leadership," Wolin said. "You have to have some kind of confidence that your government is giving you this for some kind of good reasons.

"These kids have heard they can't play. What are the reasons they have heard they can't play? Because it's dangerous. What does it do to our credibility as adults that the football players and soccer players in the state of Illinois if they take a look around and they look at everybody else and every other sport in the Midwest playing? What does it do to you as a basketball player that instead of going down to your local gym and playing you have to go to Indiana to play in a tournament?"

Wolin said the board considered the mental health of students in deciding to go ahead with recommending a winter basketball season. He wishes the IDPH would do the same -- or provide studies why it is not safe.

"The board decided the way it did because of a lack of convincing evidence that if we played basketball that the health of our kids would be affected," he said. "They didn't give us a good reason not to play. That's our position.

"If the governor and Illinois Department of Health want to say we have this data, that's fine, but they don't have it. It's not there."

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