Every year, the African American Male Research Initiative brings hundreds of athletes, educators, mental health experts and sports industry professionals to the Forty Acres for the Black Student-Athlete Summit, a three-day event that sparks timely conversations about the challenges and opportunities faced by Black student-athletes.
While topics ran the gamut from National Anthem protests to professional development, sessions on health and wellness made up a considerable chunk of the program—and for good reason. Left unchecked, the intensity of collegiate sports can pose serious mental health consequences for student-athletes.
Atlanta Dreams player Imani McGee-Stafford spoke out about her mental health journey during her keynote address.
“If I give 100 percent, that’s good enough,” says McGee-Stafford, who attended UT Austin on a basketball scholarship before taking her talents to the WNBA. “It really doesn’t matter what other people expect me to do, because I’m doing this for me.”
For McGee-Stafford, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in accounting, college days are just barely a thing of the past. While she speaks highly of her alma mater and the opportunities it gave her, she knows all too well the costs that some student athletes must pay.
“Too many times we failed the Black student-athlete by only caring about what they do on the field, or the court or the pool—whatever it may be,” McGee-Stafford says. “Once they enter the real world, they’re not equipped with the tools necessary to survive. They’ve been an athlete for four years. Nobody has taken the time to nurture the other parts of their identity.”
What McGee-Stafford calls the “full identity” of the Black student-athlete runs parallel to a principle aim of mental health recovery programs: to nourish the complex totality of
experience and environment that constitutes individual well-being. Too often, there are parts of that whole that remain unrecognized or mistreated—sometimes for years. McGee-Stafford grew up in an abusive household and turned to nearly losing her scholarship in the process. It took the support of a high school coach to pivot McGee-Stafford away from a downhill path and into her university basketball career.
“When I got [to UT Austin], I received the mental health services I needed my entire life,” she says. “Without any repercussions, without any consequences, without any stigma attached to it.”
Basketball wasn’t the only interest that McGee-Stafford pursued in college. Slam poetry and spoken word soon found their way into her life. “It gave me a voice I didn’t know I
needed—didn’t know I had, for that matter,” she says. “It’s definitely been a very positive coping mechanism for me.”
Her other forms of coping now stem from a powerful sense of self-awareness.
“I know myself well enough to know when I need to ask for extra help,” she says. “When I’m severely depressed, I can tell myself and see my triggers now—which I wasn’t always able to do.”
True self-worth can be hard to come by when ruthless competition and advancement are the order of the day—something student athletes know a thing or two about. However, the bleak narrative of inadequacy and failure that harsh superiors, audiences and other critics help propagate isn’t the only one out there. People like McGee-Stafford are making sure of it.
Through her sharp prose and smart plays, McGee-Stafford shows that recovery is possible—and that a resilient mindset is powerful.
“We definitely have to tell stories of triumph and stories of success, as opposed to the same old ‘woe is me’ story,” she adds. “Most of us get through it, and we get through it positively.”
by Ike Evans