Even as late as 10 years ago you would probably never head a college football coach talk about his players’ mental health.
Athletes, even college ones, are perceived as somehow not experiencing the same emotions that the rest of us non-athletes do. Football players aren’t supposed to be sad or depressed, that was the perception anyway. Still today there is a certain stigma that athletes who speak out about mental illness are somehow weak or too sensitive.
That old-school kind of tough-guy act does not fly with West Virginia football coach Neal Brown, however. On a video call with media Wednesday morning, Brown made it clear how serious of an issue this is for him.
“I’m more worried right now about our players’ mental wellbeing, rather than their physical wellbeing,” Brown said. “I really am.”
With his team and staff spread far and wide due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Brown said how his players are doing mentally and emotionally is his number one concern. Brown, a wide receiver at Kentucky from 1998-2000, admitted that when he was a player, you would never hear a coach express concern for his team’s mental health.
“When I was playing, it wasn’t that the coaches didn’t care, it’s that they didn’t know what they didn’t know,” Brown said. “It was something that wasn’t discussed.”
A coach now himself, one of the things Brown is insistent on during this pandemic is seeing his players, through video chat software like Zoom and Facetime, almost every day.
“I want to see them on one of these meetings (throughout the week), where I can look (at them) because I know these kids and I can tell if something’s off. And if something’s off let’s start asking the questions,” Brown said.
Brown said he can tell if something Is wrong with a player just by seeing him, whether it’s something as small as waking up on the wrong side of the bed or as serious as a loved one being infected. Big or small, Brown said he does not want his players trying to go through any hardship on their own.
“That’s why we try to have eyeball-to-eyeball contact Monday through Friday, so we can get a good picture of how they’re doing,” Brown said. “It has little to do with the game of football, has little to do with academics, it has mostly to do with are they safe and are they well.”
The NCAA allots coaches eight hours each week to talk football with their team. Brown said he and his staff don’t even use the full eight hours because he knows football is not the most important thing in his players’ lives right now. He said it would be impossible to try and hold their attention to football for eight hours each week.
When the time comes to play football again, and Brown remains “hopefully optimistic” that time will come, is when Brown and the Mountaineers will turn their full attention back to football and preparing for the season.