Former Student-Athletes’ Deaths Shed Light On Underlying Issue Within College Athletics
De’Runnya “Bear” Wilson’s shooting death in January 2020 has bothered me as much as Chris Smith’s did, another former Mississippi State University wide receiver who was murdered in 2016.
In Wilson, we’re talking about a student-athlete with the following accolades:
three-time state champion in basketball at Wenonah High School in Birmingham (AL); Alabama’s 2013 Mr. Basketball; record holder for second-most touchdown receptions in a career at MSU; and a crucial member of the 2014 No. 1 ranked Bulldogs.
So for De’Runnya – who was a legend to family, friends, and the Wenonah and Starkville communities – to be killed, in the same area where he gained stardom, is disheartening.
He left MSU following his junior season to enter the NFL draft but wasn’t selected, although he did spend time on the Chicago Bears’ practice squad. Unlike their basketball counterparts, football players aren’t allowed to return to school after declaring for the NFL draft, even if they go undrafted. This rule should be changed to mirror that of basketball players; but, even if a player can’t return to school to play football, he should at least be given the chance to finish his degree – it’s not clear if Wilson was granted the opportunity to do so.
An excerpt from an AL.com article honoring De’Runnya’s life highlights an issue that many former athletes are dealing with, especially black male athletes, and that’s struggling to transition to life after sports. It stated that “Wilson, 25, struggled to find steady work since failing to make it in professional football… and he continued to work out while seeking another chance and had hoped to latch on to an XFL team this spring.”
It’s likely he was “latching on” to those professional football dreams because there was nothing else for him to grab ahold to.
I knew Bear. We’re from the same city, we were both state champions in high school basketball, our communities aren’t too far from each other and we’re both former MSU athletes. Although we knew of each other, I didn’t meet him until the summer of 2013; he was an incoming freshman and I was wrapping up my final class to complete my graduation requirements. It was a TV broadcasting course and for my final project, I did a feature piece with Bear as my main subject, spotlighting the life of a dual-sport athlete. I even interviewed State’s starting quarterback at the time, Dak Prescott. Little did I know, the history the two would make together and the love and respect Bear would develop for Dak. I regret that I don’t have that feature in my possession today to honor Bear. But what grieves me more is how we went from an astronomical duo of Dak and “Bear Force One” to one being a star in the NFL and the other now six feet under.
Even though De’Runnya didn’t make it pro in football, I’m curious to know if anyone in a position to help – from community leaders to former college coaches and administrators – tried to guide or advise him once things didn’t work out in the NFL. Again, I’m not sure if Bear earned his degree or not, but I know Chris Smith did. Chris and I had classes together, would see each other in study hall and even walked during the same commencement in 2013. Ironically, he was shot and killed in his hometown of Meridian, MS. He was in his mid-20s and a father, just like Bear. And he, too, was a state champion in high school – in football – and one of the top recruits in his state. Even with a degree, it’s possible that Chris was struggling to adjust to life after sports as well.
There’s a real disconnection between being a collegiate student-athlete and professional-career preparation. Due to this disconnect, many former athletes don’t know how to function once they return home – to small towns and inner-cities, in most cases – because all they’ve been programmed to do is play sports. Student-athletes having a scholarship to fund their degrees shouldn’t be a trade-off for them having tools that will prepare them to be able to thrive following college athletics.
Now I’m not saying non-athletes don’t have struggles transitioning into the professional world, but student-athletes are at a disadvantage because they don’t have as much time and opportunity as regular students to gain work experience and job training through workshops and internships because of their demanding schedules. And I’d be negligent to exclude the fact that many female athletes aren’t the exception. Although pro sports opportunities are fewer for women, we are conditioned in the same way our male counterparts are and some of us are struggling to find jobs, also, or working jobs we could have without obtaining a degree. We just aren’t dying in our communities like some former male athletes, specifically black male athletes.
So what can be done to better assist all student-athletes in their transition into the real world?
First, coaches and academic advisors should work together to make sure student-athletes are majoring in fields that are suited for their gifts and passions outside of sports, or at least their intended fields of study aren’t limited professionally. Furthermore, advisors should make sure student-athletes understand how they can actually apply their degrees and what jobs align with their majors.
Luckily for me, I knew I wanted to major in Communication with a concentration in journalism going into college. However, I wasn’t made aware of opportunities that would’ve been beneficial to my career. All the work experience I gained, writing for my school paper and working at the campus radio station, I sought out on my own.
Next, athletic advisors – or someone in the athletic department – need to do a better job working with student-athletes’ departmental advisors to make sure athletes are aware of conferences, networking events, job fairs, workshops and internships that correspond with their majors, especially if they’re located on or near campus.
Then, the NCAA, compliance departments, athletic directors, and coaches have to figure out a way to cut back on practice, individual workouts and weight training hours to allow athletes to participate in the aforementioned career development opportunities. Athletes are students, first, so everything that comes with being a college student should be a priority.
Also, athletes should be able to have a relationship with boosters in a way that isn’t an NCAA violation. During my freshman year, my head coach assigned boosters to certain players to serve as mentors, and I appreciated that. But I can only remember having dinner at my mentors’ houses one time, each. The relationships didn’t go any further. However, with the exception of money, boosters have so much more to offer. I’m sure they’re working in fields that some athletes are pursuing degrees in and can serve as extended advisors; plus, they’re usually local and may own companies where athletes can do internships or gain work experience. Their role is to support the athletic program – whether it be football, basketball, softball or volleyball – and they should be utilized more to better serve student-athletes.
In addition, every team should provide a certified life coach to foster mental stability for student-athletes while they’re on campus. Athletes face challenges within and outside of their sport and having someone to help them work through their problems is not only good for their academic and athletic performance, but for their overall well-being.
Finally, The NCAA should use its resources to partner with companies and organizations throughout the country to create post-graduate externship programs for student-athletes who’ve graduated but may not be ready to enter the work force, due to a lack of training and skills, or who may not have the desire or mental capacity to attend graduate school. Former athletes could gain three-to-six months of job shadowing or hands-on training for their intended fields instead of being left to fend for themselves.
The NCAA and its member institutions have profited substantially from the labor of student-athletes, so there’s no reason why some of these same athletes should be struggling to find work or dying because they feel they have no one to turn to for help.
Now I won’t put all of the blame on universities, because grade schools and their curriculums need to be more tailored to helping students find their gifts and teaching them skills and courses that are more real-word transferable; but collegiate institutions have better means to put student-athletes in a position to enhance their livelihoods and have a better quality of life.
But, ultimately, it’s up to student-athletes to want more for themselves and embrace the “more than an athlete” mentality before they get to college. For the most part, female athletes understand that college is a means to an end, but no matter how many times you tell male athletes their chances of going pro are slim to none, they still have high hopes. And I don’t blame them. I wish they all could make it. The NBA and NFL, especially, have saved a lot of black athletes’ lives. Because many of those players could’ve been Bear or Chris if they didn’t make it pro.