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Experts Discuss the Black Student-Athlete in the Age of COVID-19

By Jessica Sinn

Black Student-Athletes, running

Only time will tell if college sports will begin as scheduled in the fall of 2020—or, in the worst case, if the season will exist at all. To best prepare for current and future challenges and setbacks, leaders of the DDCE’s Black Student-Athlete Summit presented this webinar to 100 higher education professionals across the nation.

We pulled some highlights from the conversation, which touched on a number of issues affecting college athletics—from supporting students while they finish school online, to self-advocacy in the face of budget cuts, to addressing mental health challenges during this time of fear and uncertainty.


Leonard Moore (200px square)Dr. Leonard N. Moore, Vice President of Diversity and Community Engagement and George W. Littlefield Professor of American History

The Role of Higher Education Moving Forward

“People now are going to start questioning, ‘What is the role of higher education in society’? I think college is going to have to trim budgets. I think you will see a decrease in academic offerings…Colleges are going to have to answer to politicians and community leaders and parents, and they’re going to be increasingly tasked with solving social problems.”

Projections on the Fall Semester

“Now many of you are saying, ‘Well, what does this all have to do with athletics?’ It has everything to do with athletics, because no matter how big and powerful athletics programs are, if students aren’t back in the dorms this fall, there will be no football…”

Communicating with Coaches

“ This is a great time for many of you to challenge the coach about structures and systems that don’t work…Don’t be afraid to tell the coach, ‘When we get back together, I’ve got some ideas to do things a different way.’”


Darren Kelly (200px square)Darren Kelly, Deputy to the Vice President and Assistant Professor of Instruction, Kinesiology and Health Education

Supporting Students by Sharing Your Stories

“The first point I want to make is to emphasize for us all to share our stories.  It’s important that we do that because we need to demonstrate to our student-athletes and everybody else that we’re all in this situation together… I think it’s important when you’re trying to reach out to your athletes as you’re continuing to maintain those relationships. We’ve got to sometimes open up about ourselves to be able to show folks that hey, we’re in a stressful situation as well.”

Staying Involved and Knowing When to Intervene 

“The second point I want to make is to really understand your student-athletes’ situations. Help them navigate the challenges that they’re facing right now. So if you haven’t done this already—I’m assuming many of you have already done this—make sure you survey your students. Don’t assume that you know exactly what they’re dealing with.”

Supporting Students as they Finish Classes Online

“Your student-athletes need to know exactly what it takes to be successful in these [online] classes. They need to understand what an asynchronous class means and what asynchronous class means, that they’re logging in at the right time for the synchronous classes, and that they’re creating a schedule to stay on top of the work.”

Providing Tools for Success

“If any of your students have any accommodations through your Services for Students with Disabilities offices, make sure they’re taking advantage of these [accommodations] and holding professors accountable…It’s even more important now than ever to make sure that they’re getting those accommodations for their work.”

Staying Viable During a Time of Uncertainty 

“This  is a tough time and we don’t know what’s going to happen in a lot of situations, employment wise. This is the time to advocate the need for your services and how you add value. It’s important to continue to advocate for yourself and for the folks who you’re working with… So make sure that you have the data to support the outcomes of the work that you’re doing…”


Ryan Sutton (200px square)Ryan Sutton, Director of the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males and Mental Health Specialist

Trusting the Process

“We have to trust the process, and what I mean by that is, it’s vital that we are modeling and creating spaces that help our student-athletes acknowledge, accept and address the needs that they have on the table…If we walk through this thing, putting on a mask and saying, ‘Everything’s fine, we’re good,” we’re going to be modeling that they shouldn’t be speaking about what they’re going through. And we’re not giving them the space to vocalize what it is that they’re experiencing.”

Controlling the Controllable

“We have to work with student-athletes to help them understand that you can control the controllable. This is a situation where we do not know what may happen next…But one thing we do know is you can have control of your thoughts and how you respond in this situation. Another thing student-athletes have going for them is that, in sports psychology and in performance, they’re trained on how to operate in high-stress situations. So how do we maximize that and expand that to their daily functioning now?”

Preparing for the Long-Term Future 

“We don’t know when this is going to end. We don’t know when it will be over, but what we do know is that the impact of this will be far outstretched. The mental health symptoms that arise can be chronic…So let’s not just focus on the here and now; let’s also prepare for how we’re going to engage them [student athletes] when this is over with.”


Visit the Black Student-Athlete website to learn more about the annual three-day event that brings hundreds of scholars, mental health practitioners and higher education professionals together for timely and relevant discussions about the Black student-athlete experience in academia and beyond.

For more about UT’s response to COVID-19 and the resources available to students, faculty and staff, visit this website.