“So the time you started smoking pot seems to
be around the same time you told me you left the soccer team. Do you think there’s a connection there?” The
look on Mark’s face was one I knew. I
had hit a bit too close to home with my questions. The young man in front of me
was being forced, likely for the first time in his life, to realize that his
decision making in life was not as arbitrary as he liked to imagine and that
perhaps his choice to turn to marijuana was his form of coping with loss.
“I’ve never thought about it, but I guess that makes some sense…I dunno.” That’s
20 year old college-male talk for “that’s exactly right, and now I’m even more
scared than I was prior to walking into this hearing.” We were onto something.
It is a story I have seen too many times in my almost ten years of hearing conduct cases. Young men get cut from athletic teams or have career-ending injuries and suddenly their structured and successful lives begin to crumble. Sometimes it manifests itself in disruptive behavior like property damage, sometimes it is high-risk alcohol or drug use, and sometimes it’s more obvious that the student is struggling by exhibiting symptoms of depression and/or engaging in self-harm. After my first one or two students who fit this description, I was thinking it was coincidence, but after ten or fifteen I now realize it’s a pattern and a problem. We help our student athletes in a number of ways and offer them exceptional support, but at what cost to their development in other aspects of their life?
While I am not proud of it, before Mark came into my office I thought “oh great, another pot-smoking soccer player.” I hadn’t realized he left the team, and clearly I hadn’t mastered my own biases. The conversation started very guarded—not wanting to share much. He took responsibility for the marijuana expected that was where our conversation would end. That’s where I inquired about the connection between use and his referrals to student conduct. And the flood gates opened. Mark shared his challenges, his pain, and his confusion. For athletes, getting cut from a team is not a disappointment similar to that of failing a course, not getting a bid for a sorority, or not getting the coveted student leader position someone has applied for, this is a long-withstanding part of someone’s identity that is now taken away. So the challenge remains of how to help Mark and other students make sense of their life after a sport or separate and aside from their sport.
If I have learned anything along the way regarding my work with student athletes, it is that I know nothing about student athletes. I must let them teach me each time they arrive in my office—which is good advice for any student, but particularly for student athletes, and it has let me unlearn biases as well. But those who are cut from a team and end up in the conduct process have some similar challenges. Generally, the challenge for student affairs educators is to create a supportive environment to help the student process what’s happening around him, within him, and how he might be able to rebuild his identity after losing the identity that has been strongest for the entirety of his short life. Who is Mark after “Mark the Goalie” is no longer? That was the only Mark he knew and the only Mark he felt comfortable with for the past fourteen years. Now that Mark was gone—forever.
Peter Paquette serves as Assistant Dean of Students & Director of the Office of Student Integrity at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA. He has held conduct and residence life positions at Dickinson College, North Central College, and Loyola University-Maryland. Peter regularly presents at national conferences on masculinities and engaging men on campus and serves as a Vice Chair on the ACPA Standing Committee on Men & Masculinities. He has helped create student organizations, retreats, and leadership programs focused on male-identified students and Men of Color, created numerous conduct interventions focused on healthy masculinities, and worked with men who have perpetuated intimate partner violence. Peter obtained an M.A. in student affairs and higher education administration from The Ohio State University and a B.S. in communication studies and graphic design from Edgewood College. He can be reached at email@example.com.