What’s in a game: the plight (and grace) of athletic-less student-athletes

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There’s a poetically paradoxical ring to the status of fall sports this year. 

Stands without fans, a season without any seasons and – most poetically – student-athletes without athletics. 

By the time the NCAA announced the fall cancellations this summer, student-athletes (like everyone else) were conditioned to the reality of cancellations. The whole world, it seemed, was accustomed to the idea of our calendars being stripped bare, taking away our anticipation for everything from graduation parties to Sunday Mass. We were used to things being canceled.

But when the season was taken away from athletes, it felt different. It was not just a schedule of competitions that had been stripped from our calendar. Rather, the cancellations chiseled away at a student-athlete’s very identity: it took away the second half of our name.

When I received my coach’s email starting with the foreboding words, “Bad news, guys,” I immediately felt the immense loss of the ability to compete, to break my personal records and to showcase the work I put in over the summer. But to me, the most overwhelming loss was not athletics itself, it was the feeling of being an athlete. 

I don’t think I’m alone here: in the climate of modern college sports, student-athletes are already predisposed to a crisis of identity, and the coronavirus cancellations are bringing it to a head.

After identifying so closely with their sport, many student-athletes feel disoriented on a campus that looks exactly the same. People won’t know us in conjunction with our latest game. We won’t be introduced with our sport–our de facto surname – attached to our name. Our schedules won’t be defined in terms of championship dates. And, most disorienting of all, we are training without a single competition on our calendars. 

But the hard truth to admit is that the experience of your sport being taken away is something with which every student-athlete must eventually reconcile. In fact, if student-athletes cannot sit comfortably with themselves apart from their sports, something is very deeply wrong. 

There’s a reason that many players struggle to find meaning in school after being sidelined because of injury. It’s the same reason that college athletes struggle to find a healthy relationship with exercise after graduation, and it’s the same reason that the coronavirus cancellations are so difficult for student-athletes. That reason is that student-athletes often lack a robust understanding of their identity. 

The coronavirus cancellations are an opportunity–even a grace–for student-athletes to learn resilience. Let’s not try to gloss over the disorientation of a canceled season by insulating ourselves within our sports. Instead, let’s enter into the campus community as a whole. Let’s rediscover why we love our sport–but not let it define us.

Fortunately, resilience is habitual. When student-athletes have to step away from their sport after they graduate from UD, or even after a professional career in their sport, they will be able to draw on this habit of resilience. 

Gaining a robust understanding of your identity is not just a project of the student-athlete. It is a human project. It was the task of Adam and Eve when they left the garden as much as it was the task of the apostles as they stood gaping up at the sky into which Jesus had just ascended. 

Perhaps the grace of the coronavirus cancellations is that we might internalize Christ’s words, “you do not belong to this world.” When we see ourselves apart from our sport, or our job, or our loved ones quarantined in another part of the country–whatever was lost or canceled this year–we are able to understand ourselves in the eyes of Christ. 

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