Coping with the deaths of student-athletes

The end of a school year with graduation approaching can be the best of times for college students about to enter a world with endless possibilities and opportunities to make a difference. In the midst of a blooming spring, these people are the change agents set out into the world with an unwritten future.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, a couple of recent grisly episodes illustrate the stark reality that all is not utopia for these young people. Death has taken a couple of promising student-athletes at top academic institutions -- one a junior, one a senior about to graduate -- in two truly tragic incidents. And in both cases, it hits home, even though I never met either person.

Last week, Owen Thomas, the football captain at the University of Pennsylvania, committed suicide in his off-campus residence. Thomas, from Allentown, Pa., was a junior at Wharton.

I’m a lecturer at Wharton and have taught dozens of football players, although I did not have Thomas in a class. I did have several of his teammates and friends in my sports law class that ended this week. As we gathered for our last session, I hesitated but decided to bring up the death of Thomas, offering to the group an opportunity for anyone who wanted to share their thoughts or grief.

The reaction to my overture, which I regretted at that moment, was a piercing silence. In a true “you could hear a pin drop” moment, I noticed a few of the players started to well up with tears; others buried their heads in their hands. I tried to break the silence by saying something about how the pain would eventually pass and offered myself as a resource, still kicking myself that I had brought it up.

Thankfully, a few of Thomas’ teammates did come up after class, and a couple more have reached out through email. The overwhelming reaction was that this would be the last kid to take his own life. One student and fellow teammate, Matt Tuten, whose father is the head strength coach of the Denver Broncos, said of Thomas: “He was the happiest guy I knew.” What a powerful yet heartbreaking comment.

And at another of the country’s finest academic institutions, the University of Virginia, a men’s lacrosse player has been charged with murder in the death of a women’s lacrosse player there. The player, George Huguely, is a native of my hometown, Chevy Chase, Md., and a graduate of my high school. And now the family of 22-year-old Yeardley Love, also a senior, has lost what sounds like a wonderful person, student and friend.

I’m obviously not qualified to comment on what caused Thomas to take his life or why someone with as seemingly bright a life and future as he had would end it, or why Huguely would be driven to the depths of the crime he is alleged to have committed.

My only overriding thought is that each generation in our society is becoming more and more desensitized to all things -- whether it’s violence, sex, profane language or even emotion. I hope that in this age of texting, tweeting, Facebooking and 20-second attention spans, we have not lost the ability to comfort and recognize signs of distress. Somehow, somewhere, some way, my sense is that there were signs of danger in these cases. Those signs were either ignored or assumed handled by someone else, which they were not.

The end of the school year, with the pomp and circumstance of graduation happening all around us, is a festive and joyous time. However, it’s also a time full of stress and frazzled emotions dealing with final exams, the end of the social and emotional ties of school, whether for summer or longer, and the uncertainty of a future yet to be written.

Two student-athletes at prestigious institutions are gone, one by his own hand and the other allegedly murdered by a fellow student-athlete. In what are supposed to be the best of times, these are the absolute worst for their friends and family. My heart, touched by the tangential relationship I have with each situation, goes out to them.

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