Media failed at Pac-12 Media Day by not addressing mental health

Only conference head coach asked about issue was Mike Leach



Students and faculty members held a candlelight vigil in honor of Tyler Hilinski at the Cougar statue on Jan. 21.

JACKSON GARDNER, Evergreen reporter

Pac-12 Media Day has come and gone, and by now just about everyone has speculated on the conference’s downfalls and why they think its heading in the wrong direction.

But yesterday when coaches took the podium to field questions, it was the media that dropped the ball, not the conference of champions.

Of the 12 coaches who spoke in front of the cameras in Los Angeles, only one of them received questions about their awareness of mental health issues and what they would be doing to help their student-athletes moving forward. That coach was WSU’s Mike Leach.

Leach said they provided WSU student-athletes with resources and help immediately following the news of Tyler Hilinski’s death.

“We had counselors around the entire team, a huge number of counselors within an hour, so I think that was a big deal,” he said. “But I think it’s a constant emphasis and it needs to remain that way.”

It should also be noted that Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott took one question at media day about what the conference is doing regarding mental health issues, and he was prepared to answer.

“We’ve decided to elevate mental health as a priority area for our student-athlete health and welfare board,” Scott said. “Significant investments from the $3.6 million that we contribute annually will be dedicated to mental health awareness, education and other research initiatives.”

Scott deserves a little praise for having a real answer with substance on what is actually being done by the Pac-12, rather than giving a half-hearted “we’re doing everything we can” response.

A couple players in attendance, such as WSU senior wide receiver Kyle Sweet and University of California, Los Angeles junior linebacker Josh Woods, spoke about their relationship with Hilinski and the importance of ending the stigma around mental health.

While I am glad players were engaging in the conversation that needs to be had in every locker room around the country, I am disappointed the coaches did not answer any of these questions.

Nearly every coach got a question about the federal legalization of sports gambling and rule changes, but Leach was the only one asked about mental health, an issue that effects the Pac-12’s student-athletes more than the issues above that were raised.

This isn’t surprising to me however. When the media huddles around the coaches to start asking questions, subjects like who will be starting next fall come to mind quicker than what psychological services are you providing for your players.

But this is part of the problem we face in collegiate sports, that this question doesn’t come to our mind just as synonymously as the other questions that are asked every year.

What’s even worse is we ask questions like who is winning the quarterback battle when we know there isn’t a head coach in the country that would give you a straight answer to a question like that.

We have five new head coaches in the Pac-12 and I would be more interested to know how familiar they are with the psychologists he has on staff and their protocol for facilitating mentally healthy student-athletes as opposed to how his family has adjusted to a new setting.

Oregon State University has the Dam Worth It campaign, which focuses on changing how we approach conversations about mental health issues, and not a single person was interested in asking first-year Head Coach Jonathan Smith about it.

Beyond Oregon State, I am sure other universities in the Pac-12 have new innovative programs or campaigns to combat mental health stigmas. Personally, I would have liked to hear about them. Every school has their own way of approaching mental health issues and there is no better setting to find out how they do it than at this event.

Each coach took the podium for at least 24 minutes and every coach got at least one head-scratching question. It would have been more than appropriate to replace one of these questions that sends a coach into an automated dial tone with a question about mental health.

Why not ask a question where you have no other choice than to receive a real answer? Either the coach knows what his program is doing and answers the question or he doesn’t know and gives an ill-informed answer and it becomes painfully clear that he needs to be better informed.

I don’t think the media members who were actually there to cover the event did a bad job; it is easy for me to sit at home in Washington and speculate what went wrong. But they had an obligation to ask these questions and they didn’t.

I think the most important question that could have been asked at media day was only given to the coach that was affected most by this issue.

Perhaps I feel so strongly about these questions because I am a part of the school that made headlines for mental health issues.

But over the past couple years, as calls for more mental health awareness have been made, I was under the impression that there was a consensus that we would all do better to make mental health a more approachable topic and one that we would bring to the forefront.

Yesterday, the media did not fail the fan that loves Pac-12 football, they failed the student-athlete who struggles with depression and has known nothing other than to keep pushing forward. We failed the rising star that may not know how to deal with the anxiety of having the spotlight on him all the time. We failed the walk-on who might feel like his hard work isn’t enough.

We need to be better in order to protect student-athletes on and off-the-field, which will in turn preserve the game we love so much.