The NCAA and COVID-19: How are Student Athletes Impacted?

Sarah Suddarth

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruption to everyone’s lives, and student athletes are no exception. The unprecedented situation has presented many questions and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) has attempted to answer many of those questions coming directly from the displaced athletes themselves. In addition to questions surrounding athletic competition, many student athletes are figuring out how to cope with the new normal. The NCAA is currently trying to figure out ways to help these affected athletes.

The announcement

Collegiate athletics, like most other organized events around the world, were slowly delayed and suspended before the final announcement came that all athletic activity was canceled for the spring season. The conferences that make the up the NCAA were the first to announce canceled winter sport championships and suspended activity. In some cases, individual universities pulled their own athletes from competition as a preventative measure before competition policies were put in place. Despite the slow roll out and the necessity of the decision, the announcement that the spring athletic season was canceled was devastating for college athletes everywhere.

Although necessary, there was no good time for these athletes to have the news delivered. While some teams were notified through an athletic department email, others were called into team meetings to hear the announcement. More notably, some athletes even found out from the sideline by a referee who announced the end of the game, as well as the end of the season. The athletes were left to grapple with what this all meant. Specifically, this had a special impact on senior athletes, many of whom were told they would never play their sport in this setting ever again.

The fallout

An Open Letter to NCAA Student-Athletes from the members of the NCAA Student Athlete Advisory Committee, summed it up best by stating “[t]his is not about sports.” The cancelations are much bigger than athletic competition. The athletes affected by the pandemic, mainly the seniors who did not know that their last game was their last game, had all the opportunity, achievement, and hope taken away from them in one brief moment. The commitment these college athletes have had to their teams, training, and the sport cannot be understated and to have all of that vanish in an instant is nothing short of shattering.

As my previous articles have discussed, the NCAA has been slow to address the overwhelming, everyday mental health problems facing student athletes. This issue in addressing the problems is now complicated by the rapidly changing circumstances in which we all live, as well as many of these student athletes being cut off from their passions. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the devastation thousands of our college athletes are experiencing, but to examine the resources and recommendations the NCAA is making available to its athletes.

The help

Just as coworkers, friends, and families are busy scheduling virtual morning coffee and happy hour meetings during this time, coaches have done the same with their athletes. Over the past few weeks, college coaches have held weekly phone calls and team meetings via Zoom as a way to check in with their athletes that they used to see  every day during workouts and practices. The athletes themselves are staying in touch with regular video calls, group texts, and by sending virtual workout challenges to each other as a way to stay connected through the sport that brought them together.

Several teams have been getting creative with techniques to continue to recognize their athletes, especially their seniors, who also had their final milestone ceremonies taken away. In a webinar to help coaches and athletic administrators develop strategies to aid the student athletes, Betsy Butterick, a communication specialist and former collegiate athlete and coach, offered several suggestions to keep some semblance of normalcy alive from afar. She recommended establishing new team awards, holding virtual celebrations, sharing a book the whole team can read and discuss, and allowing players to prepare and circulate a practice plan or workout.

The resources

The NCAA has launched several pages and articles specifically addressing the prevalent issue of student athlete wellbeing amidst the pandemic. On an NCAA page entitled COVID-19 and Mental Health, the NCAA recognizes that this crisis can have a severe impact on all of our mental and physical health and self-care is as important as ever. The page provides many recommendations and resources for student athletes. The NCAA provides a link to CDC webpages and a resources guide by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The NCAA also announces daily strategies for self-care and awareness. These include creating a structured space to work, maintaining a routine, getting regular exercise, practicing mindfulness activities, as well as reaching out for support. The NCAA recommended that these resources on the webpage be sent to all health care providers, athletic staff, administrators, and coaches who oversee student athletes for them to implement as well. Although the loss of sporting events is a tragedy in itself, the athlete’s health and well-being remain a top priority during this time of uncertainty.