Season 2, Episode 6 - WSU alum and former Warriors football player Jeffrey Williams on the mental toll of sports on student-athletes and pros alike
WSU alumnus and former Warriors football player Jeffrey Williams — now part of the University of Tennessee's athletics department — reveals the mental toll that sports can on student-athletes and pros alike.
Wayne State alumnus Jeffrey Williams, a former running back for the Warriors football team and the current assistant director of mental health and wellness in the athletics department at the University of Tennessee, talks with host Darrell Dawsey about the mental strain that often confronts student-athletes and sports pro alike.
Jeffrey Williams played football at Wayne State University from 2010 to 2013 and was a member of the 2011 NCAA Division II Tournament runner-up team. He is also a national competitive Olympic weightlifter. A licensed clinical social worker, Williams joined the University of Tennessee athletics department in December 2020 and serves as the assistant director of mental health and wellness for all UT student-athletes. Williams has experience working in schools, private practice and community mental health settings. His primary responsibility is providing individual and group counseling to Tennessee student-athletes. He also consults with coaches and teams, sets up educational seminars, and conducts assessments on an as-needed basis. Williams also holds a master's in social work — specializing in cognitive behavior therapy — from Wayne State University.
Read more from Jeffrey Williams about the mental toll of sports on athletes: socialwork.wayne.edu/news/hearing-the-silent-struggles-social-work-alum-charts-new-territory-as-sports-social-worker-44193
Follow Williams on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/jeffrey-williams-lmsw-4baa10109
Follow the School of Social Work on Twitter: twitter.com/WSU_Social_Work
Introduction: Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news announcements, information, current events [and] discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today@Wayne serves as the perfect forum for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.
Darrell Dawsey: Hello, and welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. Traditionally, the issue of athletes and their mental health has rarely earned much attention from the sports press or the American media in general, but in recent years, the issue has begun to gain steam and notice. Some of the early conversation began with talk about professional football players and the toll of the sport on their brains and their behavior. NBA superstars, such as Ron Artest, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have all openly discussed their mental health challenges.
Well, the issue took an entirely new twist earlier this year when tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, and gymnastics legend in the making Simone Biles pulled out of several Olympic games — both citing the need to put their mental health first. Although both [went] through praise and criticism, they earned the sympathy and gratitude of athletes across the sports spectrum and amplified a much-needed conversation. Joining me to help continue this conversation is Jeffrey Williams, a Wayne State alumnus, former Warrior football player, and the current assistant director of mental health and wellness in the University of Tennessee's athletics department, where he works with athletes struggling with many of the same mental health issues others throughout society also face. Jeffrey, welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast.
Jeffrey Williams: Thank you for having me on this platform. I'm happy to be here.
Dawsey: Great to have you, always — good to welcome a Warrior alumnus back into the fold. So let's just kind of jump into this issue: We know that you're an expert in this, and so [I] just kind of want to kind of get a sense from you about the current zeitgeist. Why are more of us in the sports public, obviously fans and the media, talking about this? And then why is it that we seem to see so many more athletes talking about this issue, when it's traditionally been something that it hasn't been covered? And there certainly has not been a level of comfort with talking about this for many of our superstar athletes. Why is this change taking place now?
Williams: Well, there's always been a level of pressure on our athletes on a professional level, and even at the collegiate level [to] perform well. And everyone is trying to figure out, what does it take to be the best or be an elite performer? You always hear the GOAT talk, who's the greatest. And we try to figure out what helps certain individuals. And one thing we fail to leave out is people's mental health. And individuals, even at the elite level, are realizing that their mental health has always impacted their ability to perform.
And then, due to the recent things that [are] going on in our society with social injustice and COVID, there [are] so many things going on that has just impacted everyone, so no one has been exempt from dealing with some form of stressor. And now, we're in a different stage now where it used to be taboo to talk about mental health, but now a lot of our athletes are coming out and being able to be those heroes to say that it's OK to not be OK, and to get assistance and get help, and it's actually a sign of strength. So with everything that's going on, I'm happy that this is the talks that we're having about now — because just the desire for individuals just to perform at their best state, you just cannot leave out your mental health.
Dawsey: Now, you're a former collegiate football player, you work with college football players every day. What do you say to fans, critics in the media, who accused these athletes of being softer than the athletes of years gone by? In my day, a guy took a hit or somebody didn't back down from the pressure. What do you say to folks who are critical of these athletes who prioritize their mental health?
Williams: Well, I'll say to them: I had the pleasure of working at Henry Ford Hospital for some time. And when an individual is coming through the ER and they report that they have chest pains, those individuals [have] to go through certain tests just to make sure that it's nothing serious, and it could be something that's minor, but if we don't take that patient in and it's something serious, then it's malpractice on us. But if we do take this individual in, and it's nothing that serious, at least we did end to make sure that we provided the best care for this individual.
So mental health can be the same way. It's something where you can't see and you don't understand, so we have to make sure that not only if someone is saying that they don't have it today because they have mental health, we have to — just like we would, if someone said they have chest pains, we have to make sure that we take whatever they're saying seriously. Because if they go out there and they try to perform, and they're not mentally there, then that can lead to injuries and lead to further injuries that can impact their career on the long end. If they just decided to [say], "Hey, let me stop while I'm ahead; I'm realizing that something [is] off." So to everybody just criticizing these athletes, we have to realize they're humans just like us. And how would you feel? You think about one of your worst days that you've had, would you want to go out and perform or go to work on one of your worst days? And we just have to be able to give our athletes that space to say that it's OK to not have a good day.
Dawsey: OK. Now you're at a Power Five program. The stakes are as high these days as they ever been. You see now that athletes are going to be able to start getting endorsements and promotion, so there's more of a business element that's coming in, certainly above ground, that we all can kind of see than ever before. Do you think that the changing of the landscape in college football, and in some ways in other sports, do you think that's going to add to the pressure that these athletes are facing, and we going to see more of this? Or do you think that this is something that is not going to have an impact the way that some people suspected it will?
Williams: Well, I think that every case will be different; some individuals, it may not have [an] impact. To some individuals, it may increase a lot of anxiety and just pressure to even perform, or to be able to live up to whatever expectations that they may create. So every case is different, every person reacts to things differently, so it's going to be interesting to see what impacts certain individuals because it may not impact someone else, but it could impact in another student. So we [have] just got to kind of just watch and see how this all plays out and be prepared for whatever may come down the pipeline.
Dawsey: Now, we talked a little bit about fans and some of the pressure that they put on, but there's also a media element, and they openly talked about the pressure of the interviews and — something you were saying — expectations, that kind of thing. The GOAT talk in the barbershop is one thing, but when you're juxtaposed against that on ESPN or Fox Sports or something like that, it adds an entire other layer of pressure to the conversation, right? And I'm just wondering, what role do you think the media plays, and what responsibility do you think the sports media has to creating an environment where these athletes can flourish both physically and mentally?
Williams: Well, like I said, again, even with the other question, it all depends on the athlete — but there [have] been several cases where it can negatively impact somebody. If you constantly have people criticizing you, or making certain statements toward you — and certain things can be a trigger for certain athletes, so it's on the athletes' job to protect themselves on how much they allow themselves to be able to watch and observe.
Dawsey: Should we be demanding more from sports commentators, from the people that we see? It's nothing to get up on ESPN, trash somebody for 30 minutes or a half day through your show, and just walk away; I mean, I think about people like Kwame Brown recently, boiled over and finally enough was enough. Is there a point at which we should require or demand a certain level of, not censorship, certainly not, but accountability and responsibility in our press?
Williams: Absolutely, absolutely. That's a great case that you brought up because when you think about the Kwame Brown situation, they have been talking about him and talking about his character for so long, and it pushed him over the edge. So I think that we need to kind of hold them more accountable and realize that these athletes are human beings: They have mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters just like us, and we shouldn't treat someone — or talk about someone — in a way that we wouldn't want our family to be talked about. It's kind of like that golden rule: "Treat others how you want to be treated." But I do understand the dynamics of being able to talk about someone's game or someone's craft that they bring to the sport. But we have to be able to make sure that we cannot go overboard and criticize the character in the person, and just kind of stick to the performance, and separate the performance and the human being so they don't mesh and we don't offend these individuals that [are] playing the sport.
Dawsey: Now, you played on the Wayne State football team — you've been an athlete [at] a high level. How have you been affected by the issue of sports and mental health? How does that sort of dovetail with your own personal experiences in life?
Williams: Well, speaking back in college, it impacted me tremendously. At the time, I didn't understand that I'm not just a football player, but that I'm a highly effective human being just playing the sport. I didn't know that, right? So if my performance isn't well, or if I'm not making a certain level on the depth chart, that would impact not just while I'm playing, but that would impact the rest of my day — or it could leak over into other areas of my life, if that one particular sport event is not going well.
And even as a competitive Olympic weightlifter now, if I'm not having a good performance in the gym, that can impact other areas of my life, right? So it's a lot of pressure on athletes, and that's why mental health is important. Because we're able to kind of put these problems — the issues — on a paper, and to be able to solve this with an expert, so that you can put the right cognitive thinking toward your situation and not have any negative distortions that can cause you to have the rest of your day impacted, or cause you to be stressed to a level where you're not able to perform, or impact negatively other areas of your life.
Dawsey: Now, you came up in a slightly different era; even though you're still a young man, it's a slightly different era. Did you ever feel, whether it be in high school or college, did you ever feel like you could step away for a day, a week or however much time you may need to get yourself together?
Williams: I did not feel that. I never felt that; back then when I was playing, it was kind of similar to now in a sense of you give it all you [have] got, and you [have] got to just tough it out and, you know, you [have] got to be strong, right? But sometimes you [have] got to know when to just be able to step back and unplug so that you can come back and be better.
Dawsey: Is that —
Williams: And more.
Dawsey: Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Williams: A lot of times, we think more means that's going to help you to perform well, but sometimes giving more can actually harm you toward achieving your goal, so sometimes less is better than giving more all the time.
Dawsey: Now, down there at Tennessee, is there the room for that? I mean, that's part of your job, I would imagine, is helping to create spaces where if that needs to happen, that can happen. But then that runs up against the dynamics of big-time sports — "we need you out on the field, there a lot of people," — to the point we were making my expectations, so on and so forth. How difficult is it now — even in the environment where you are — for athletes to be able to do that, and tell me kind of what you do to help create space for that?
Williams: Well, NCAA has definitely put an emphasis on the universities to take the athletes' mental health very seriously, and we've been doing that here at the University of Tennessee. And this is even before all of this stuff kind of came out in the media. We prioritize our athletes' mental health. So if these individuals need some time for themselves, we're supporting that, and that's why we have the services that we have in place to be able to make sure that we're in-house. You don't have to go out to some other agency to get the services that you need; we're all right here in the sports complex, so they're able to come and get their needs met, and if they need to take a break, then that's what we support.
Dawsey: OK — and I would imagine that's the case for sports across the spectrum there at Tennessee. Do you only work with the football team, or do you also work with other [teams]?
Williams: So I work with every [team]; it doesn't matter what sport you're playing, I work with all sports.
Dawsey: OK. I mean, all sports have different dynamics, but in your experience, is there any particular sport that seems more stressful or that creates more stress for its participants than others?
Williams: You know, each sport has its own culture — has its own dynamics — and it's always tailored to the individual. Each person, they will … certain things may stress a certain person out, and other things wouldn't stress another person out, so it all depends. And then you have individuals — we're so uniquely made, everyone has their own background, their own experiences. And kind of like what we talked about in the article that you guys published about just being in foster care: If there's an athlete that had a similar background that I had, maybe they will be more impacted by something that someone who didn't have that experience has, so it all depends. It's all, each person has their own unique case, and that's why we have to be careful with the critics when they say, "Oh, you [have] got to be tough." You never know what an individual is going through. You just can't look on the outside and say, "You should be able to do this." You just never know.
Dawsey: All right, that makes a lot of sense. Well, I know you're busy, so I don't want to hold up too much of your time, but I want to give you the opportunity to talk about if there's anything we may have overlooked or may not have discussed in depth. Is there anything else that you'd like to say as it regards to this issue?
Williams: Yeah, I just think that we need to continue to have these talks, and I'm happy that you've allowed me to come on here to talk about mental health. We have to destigmatize, or break the negative stigma, toward going to get help, or speak with a therapist or address your mental health. We have to stop that so individuals will come in and be able to get the help that they need so that they can be better in their environment. And once they're better in their environment, everyone who they [are] connected to, they can have a positive impact on them. So, it's all about continuing to wave that flag and saying mental health, mental health, mental health is important — and as long as we keep doing that, then we'll just be moving that much closer in society.
Dawsey: All right. Well, that sounds fantastic. Well, thank you so much for taking your time. And you should know that our School of Social Work is very proud of you and very happy for you. We, as a university, are elated that our alumni are out there making such a great impact in such a critical area. So thanks again for your time, Jeffrey, and you have a fantastic day, all right? And hope to have you back soon.
Williams: Thank you.
Dawsey: All right. Take care. This is Darrell Dawsey. This is the Today@Wayne podcast.
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