When Fans Abandon, Young Athletes are not Prepared
It is unbelievable to think about the immense popularity and impact of sports in the United States, especially its most popular sport, football. With the rise of social media, the ability of an athlete to become an overnight sensation is no more complicated than posting a video.
The exposure of athletes to fans and media, particularly high school athletes, is unprecedented.
Take for example the dramatic rise of brands like Overtime from its grassroots highlights to original content and 50 million followers across 7 platforms. Consider that there are no less than three hit shows on Netflix alone, covering the lives of young athletes including QB1: Beyond the Lights and Last Chance U. Unquestionably, there is arguably no better time in history to become a high school sports sensation, that is, as long as you are successful.
Since 2013, on any given Friday night in the Fall, I am on the sidelines somewhere in Arizona providing medical coverage for high school football. I’ve grown to embrace the sports scene, following the rankings and high-profile athlete features in the local paper. In recent years, Arizona has had some big-name athletes play Division I football, arguably none bigger than Spencer Rattler, QB, University of Oklahoma. Nicknamed the Young Legend by a local sports radio host, Ratter currently holds the AZ state passing record at 11,083 yards amassed for 2015 to 2018 at Pinnacle High School. He was featured in the QB1 Netflix series and garnered tens of thousands of social media followers. Now in 2021, buoyed by preseason predictions of the Heisman frontrunner and first-round NFL draft pick, Rattler has his own logo and merchandise. It's clear that the sky is the limit for this young man, but what isn’t obvious is what happens if his star starts to fade or the limelight just isn’t so bright. Is he ready for what’s next?
Even though they are currently undefeated and ranked in the top 5, the Sooners have not looked dominant with Rattler under center. He was booed, at his home stadium, after an interception against West Virginia and subsequently benched against Texas in the biggest game of the year up to this point. Since then, social media has not been kind, to say the least, and the Sooner faithful have seemed to fall out of love with their high-profile QB, for now.
With all the upside to exposure, publicity and self-promotion, have those that care for athletes taken a moment to prepare them for when adversity causes a change in course. I don't mean the hardship of losing a game, but the devastation of losing the adoration of fans. Twitter, for one, is merciless with its memes taking no pity on any individual, particularly athletes. Whether due to injury or perceived poor play Spencer Rattler’s story is not unique. These things happen in sports at all levels all over the country. Nonetheless, athletes are not prepared when it actually does. Do high-profile young athletes have an audible when fickle fans glom to the next hope at a championship? I would argue the majority of athletes do not. Why would they?
Many athletes in Rattler's position have never lost a game in their high school career prior to college. And that is exactly why they are the most vulnerable to mental distress. Their entire world is lived through one lens, football, and a shock like this can be brutal. Athletes are trained to show confidence, but I can assure you there are feelings of isolation and despair, I've seen in others first-hand. Athletes need to be shown how to cope before adversity happens not in the midst of it. Mental resiliency, positive thinking, vulnerability are all concepts athletes should have mastered just as much as their playbook.
On the field, athletes are prepared for every scenario, but somehow they are never quite prepared enough for intangibles off the field.
If you are a coach, athletic trainer, personal trainer, or just involved in an athlete's life, take the time to prepare them for when sports aren’t as successful as its always been. As for Rattler, I am sure he will be playing on Sundays, but for now take a second to lift him up, encourage him or anyone else in his shoes.
Randon T. Hall, MD