The Mental Cost

Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney (18) is hailed by coaches and teammates as having a high football IQ. That quality translates to off the field, too, with the standout bringing attention to the players’ mental health during relentless rumors. Photo by Steve Manuel.

Shaka Toney deserves a lot of credit. Let me tell you why.

First, here’s why Toney should already be on your radar. He’s distinguished himself as a standout along the defensive line, helping to create havoc with his wingspan, reach, and length. 

Toney has a ferocious drive, once registering four sacks in a single quarter, tying the program record in 2018 at Indiana. And coaches and teammates routinely mention Toney’s football IQ when describing why he’s so successful and so valuable to the Nittany Lions, both on and off the field. 

This is the quality that stood out recently, though you could easily argue that the sharp point Toney made goes well beyond football.

First, the background: Toney said this on what ended up being the day before the Big Ten announced that there’d be, after all, a fall season. And he said it amid an unrelenting media storm that featured nonstop inaccurate reports.

“Everyone only thinking about football. The rumors y’all keep putting out is destroying our mental health. Just let them announce it please. If you care about players in the B10 just wait for the answer.”

It’s not clear whether Toney was specifically referencing only the media or also fans, though either way, he’s absolutely right. And in line with his teammates who have participated in social justice rallies and marches this summer, or teammates who’ve promoted a safe return to campus on social media, Toney displayed an incredible level of leadership and maturity. 

No football this season would absolutely be devastating to a lot of individuals and businesses, many of whom are going to feel the effects anyway with no fans attending games, though the would-be impact would hit the student-athletes themselves the hardest. So, credit Toney for speaking up on an issue that some folks still are shy about discussing. Sometimes, it’s easy to recognize why. A quick scroll through the replies to Toney’s post reveals mostly positive responses, though there are a few that weren’t. 

Far and away the most thoughtful article I read during the past month was from Sports Illustrated columnist Matthew Stevens, who authored a selection titled, “The Big Ten Misinformation Campaign by ‘Content Creators’ Needs to End.”

Stevens threaded his column around the chaos caused by all the misreporting and general uncertainty surrounding the Big Ten’s final, not-so-final, decision to not play football this fall. That’s because when conference commissioner Kevin Warren said in August that the fall season was postponed and the decision wouldn’t be revisited, he meant the exact opposite. 

Give Warren and his colleagues credit in continuing to exhaust all options, though he could have said in August that’d be the plan. Here’s something I prepared in a few minutes. I think it would have worked:

Look, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. We’re learning new information every day — every hour in some cases — so please give us a few weeks. In the meantime, we’re going to do everything we can to get our student-athletes competing this fall in a safe manner. As soon as we know more, we’ll let you know, and we’ll be as thorough and decisive as the medical facts will allow us to be. We’ll be transparent to cut down on any rumors, and the only official announcement you should believe will come from the conference offices.

How hard would that have been? Not very. 

Instead, the sweeping statement that sports wouldn’t be happening left a whole lot of folks wondering what was next, and when it would be announced. This is the part of the play where all the writers and reporters rush in with their Twitter accounts. 

Never mind that these scoops everyone was chasing were details everybody would learn eventually. Or that the reports changed so often it was difficult to know which ones to take seriously, if any.

The media deserves the lion’s share of criticism, though the Big Ten deserves some, too, for creating the mercurial scenario in the first place.  

Here’s the point: We heard for weeks on end that at the center of all the discussions were the student-athletes and their well-being. As Toney astutely pointed out, the players’ mental health certainly falls into that category. 

In some ways, it’s pointless trying to blame the media for creating and feeding into a frenzy when expecting anything less is like expecting an undersized running back to protect his quarterback from Micah Parsons. But this situation is worth pointing out for no other reason than we might see a replay next month. 

Yes, Penn State and the Big Ten are scheduled to play a nine-game season. Emphasis on scheduled. Numerous college football games have been postponed because of COVID-19, most recently, Notre Dame’s Saturday contest against Wake Forest. And locally in Happy Valley, State College High School won’t play its Friday night season-opener against Central Dauphin East. The school is still employing remote learning and has approved athletic competitions for contact sports only when in-person learning is taking place. You can read more on WTAJ’s website.

So, if we’re in a similar situation next month leading up to Penn State’s season opener on Oct. 24 — and believe me, I sincerely hope we’re not — with reports swirling about a possible postponement or other changes to the football schedule, let’s remember to act responsibly and with measure. 

It’s for the well-being of student-athletes at Penn State and all across the Big Ten. And after all, that’s what matters most.

Right?  

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