The Soul of the Athlete
Often (to be honest, far too often), we as fans of the various collegiate sports will discuss events around the Auburn campus and in competition in which our teams are represented and include phrases like “free ride,” “full ride,” and “scholarship players.” We will then point to superficial aspects of team media events, what these individuals eat, where they live and how well or poorly they performed in competition while wearing burnt orange and navy blue. We express “disappointment” and “disillusionment” at losses and often are less than appreciative even in victory with phrases like, “well, we SHOULD have won that one,…”
Yet, amid the triumphs and trials of any organized sport, there are in addition to high achievement sometimes demoralizing disappointment. Some disappointments are centered on the outcome of games, scores, officiating, fan attention spans, public interviews and and the vagaries of media attention. But every now and then we are reminded rather poignantly and profoundly that there is also a very human cost to these sports we all love and attend, and those who pay those costs do so at a very high premium of their time, effort and, very often, their lifelong health.
I speak of the student athletes themselves and the burdens they all willingly endure and bear for the sake of the teams to which they belong and sports in which they compete in the name of Auburn University. Oftentimes their most stunning and remarkable efforts go by virtually unnoticed by the public or fans of the sports they compete in. These incredibly dedicated individuals train countless hours year round in grueling, difficult workouts that are far from the roar of the crowd, the media cameras, and microphones.
Even when they do see those things, they aren’t always during victory celebrations. Just as often they are at the end of tight and close competition in which they have given supremely exhausting individual efforts but came up just short of success and are, in the moment, struggling with the emotions of those events. But the expectation from the media and us as fans is that must be placed aside as they must answer the incessant queries about what they did or didn’t do in a split-second critical moment of a difficult and challenging competition at levels of expertise and athletic ability that is well outside the reach of 99% of the viewing public.
All for us, for our school, for their coaches and ultimately, for their fellow teammates.
But victory and defeat are not the only outcomes these students experience. For individual athletes at this level there is also the ever present risk of injury that they take every time they put on the uniform whether in training or competition. Sometimes those injuries are slight, sometimes they are severe, extremely painful with long recovery times that are often extensive. Other times, they take an even greater toll. For some, the impact of these injuries are felt long after all the medals, trophies and ribbons are placed into displays and their names are forgotten.
In just the last few weeks we have witnessed this outcome for some Auburn Tigers at the highest level of competition in two sports. The injuries suffered by Chuma Okeke in the Sweet Sixteen game against North Carolina and Samantha Cerio in the Regional NCAA Gymnastics final were both highly public and excruciatingly painful in ways few of us can even imagine, much less appreciate, when you consider what those individuals contributed in both sports, starting from the first day of their Auburn careers until the heartbreaking moments we witnessed.
The hours, effort and costs associated with each of their contributions is almost incalculable as both of them competed at the very highest level of their respective sports. Like all athletes they were challenged daily, weekly, monthly, struggled mightily in their field, and trained at a level of effort and commitment all but unmatched by any other student at this or any other university. To compete at their level of competence and competitiveness took great courage, dedication and commitment to excellence all but unmatched by any other type of student studying at Auburn.
My point in all of this is these young people with the title of student-athlete give a great deal of themselves to both the university and the fans of the sports they compete in. We should appreciate what is asked of our student athletes, how much is required by the sports they compete in, and consider that level of effort in the name of Auburn before we criticize overly much the results of that effort.
We aren’t there in the training room, locker room or on the practice field day to day. We’re not in the weight room for that last painful set, at the ice bath for that first plunge of a leg or arm, or anywhere near an emergency room examination table as the triage begins for injuries. Let’s all make an effort of our own to grant them that modicum of respect for wearing the colors of our teams before we attach blame or negativity to any sport they play or how they compete.
Win or lose, they’ve all earned a heartfelt “War Eagle” from us, many times over.