What I can (and cannot) see, as a sports photographer for an NCAA school:
What I can see: Student-athletes giving their all for the success of themselves, their teammates, coaches, and fans. Through that wide-angle lens, I capture moments of pure elation, celebration, and joy. Later, I edit those pictures to remove any unnecessary components, whether it be a color change, noise reduction, or a lighting issue. I edit them, non-stop. I remove factors that take away from the reality of the moment, with the hopes of generating more likes, comments, and shares on my photo account.
That’s my job as a photographer. I edit the bad plays, and delete the brutal falls. Just as I agreed to at the beginning of my role, I need to get the ‘elated’ moments, the times of cheering and happiness --the raw moments, I must capture the raw moments.
The raw moments. Minus the heartbreaking losses. Minus the tears of frustration. Minus every single way in which sport can be viewed as anything less than what it has been believed to be for centuries.
And that’s what I can’t see.
Suvir competed in track & field in high school and is now a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, where he works for the Athletics Department as a content creator.
Coming into my role developing media content within the realm of college sports, I was naive to any indicator of a “Hidden Opponent.” Sports always seemed two-dimensional. There are players and teams, competing against one another, led by coaches and organizations, who work for the fans and bigger industries. That’s all there is to it, nothing too deep or abstract. A craft that has been perfected since prehistory; sports, when broken down to the fundamentals, are a basic form of art that can be fully understood through a TV set or a framed picture. That’s it. That’s all it has ever looked like, nothing less and nothing more.
The vulnerability found in sports has always been in injuries. Despite that, the common response to said injuries has always been, “Walk it off, you’ll be fine.”
Whether it be a rolled ankle or a nasty fall, that’s what is expected. You walk it off, you feel better. You push yourself some more, things will work out, they have to. Athletes are taught from a young age to "walk it off," which goes for everything, even beyond the playing field. A tough day in class? Push through, there are only two periods left. A painful workout? A little more pain will make it worth it. And so on. From whenever they start their respective sport, athletes are taught to “push through” to reach a new level of success, to put themselves ahead of the rest.
Again and again. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Go through the pictures, delete the shots that showcase the pain and the tears. Anything that is less than happy or action-worthy? Gone. They need to be perfect. Athletes are suffocated by that mindset that is pushed upon them through the desire to improve at their craft, the expectations of fans and coaches, and the worry of not living up to their purpose.
I can’t speak about the pressures that student-athletes face. I am in no position to try and act like I know what is happening internally, beyond my snaps of heartbreak and elation. My purpose in writing this is to shine light on a subject that has hit close to home for me, more than I realized at first.
Transitioning from the simplicity of photographing high school sports to the advanced facets of college sports, I realized that there was a lot more to the sports than simply executing on the field. Whether it be the student who runs on three hours of sleep, boatloads of caffeine, strenuous afternoon workouts, and groggy homework-intensive evenings, or the athletes that wear a green bandana on their backpacks to show their support for mental health awareness. I have met countless athletes who are somehow able to hide the harsh realities of this constrained lifestyle when conversing with the quiet guy taking their action shots in the corner.
Others who I have had the privilege of meeting, have dreams of walking on to a sports team in college. What about the ones who have dreams of walking on just because they crave the feeling of being pushed to do better? Is it worth it? Does it come with more pros than cons, or is it an unrelenting type of quicksand that they won’t be able to get out of as soon as they eagerly jump in?
One thing that I have learned about college sports and student-athletes is that it’s not what it seems. It never has been and that’s the issue. Student-athletes are portrayed to be living life in luxury, with free travel, unlimited access to food, and perks beyond comparison.
But what happens when those amenities become part of the pain? Being forced to travel on weekends, spending countless hours on the bus and on the plane. Bus every week, flight every other, playing this team this weekend, and another the next.
While they are able to escape the demands of travel, when at home, the demands of a student-athlete are everlasting, especially in a social environment.
All those friends. People stop them on the streets to get a word in. Fans hope to get a picture, or even just a handshake. Follower after follower, mention after mention, the whole world wants to be their friend. Why?
The game-winning shot. The massive stages with blinding lights shining down. The hype, the cheering, the adoration. These athletes find themselves trading their lives for a high-end life. Fans and peers, worldwide, want to get as close as possible to that hype, and by meeting the athletes on campus, they’re getting a taste of the action --the success that these athletes have been fortunate enough to witness throughout their lives. These athletes have begun to be defined by these big moments in their sports careers. Their highlights are now viewed as their character. Their confidence on the court finds its way of translating itself into their persona in the classroom. Their emotions displayed on the field, make people question their personality, and so on.
Moreover, this facade develops when placed in the collegiate realm, and as fans witness athletic greatness, they tend to believe that athletes have always been successful. That they have never faced a hint of disappointment in their journey to becoming who they are. That they have never had an off day. And when this smokey window is put between the life of student-athletes and the expectations of fans and organizations, there is a whole new weight put on the shoulders of student-athletes. Once this weight begins to envelop these students, they are forced to embody two personalities, one being the athlete, the other being the student, the person, the friend. So many times, student-athletes are envisioned as being the star athlete, and put on a pedestal that they don’t even want to be on.
Yes, they have friends and fans. But, what if they stop playing well? Or, what if they get injured? Or, what if they stop playing their sport completely? What is going to happen to the support of their friends and their teammates? Will they still be there? Even if there is no ‘hype’ attached to that friendship?
As sad as it sounds, that thought is one of the many that can consume the minds of student-athletes.
Or what happens when that unlimited food just becomes a waste? Dealing with so much internal pain, eating becomes an avenue for distraction or elimination. Maybe for a week or even a month. Or on the contrary, maybe they can’t even find a way to eat, or get food in their system. Their mind is preoccupied with thoughts, one after another, time in a day is passing faster than a train, as if there is no time to even eat.
While skipping a meal seems like an option to many, skipping a workout is unheard of. If one skips a meal, it’s the expectation that they’ll “make up” for it, with a big meal later, or the consumption of enough fluids. But, if one skips a workout, then they’ve fallen behind. Then, they’re not committed to the grind. Then, every single person who did complete the workout is going to be ahead of them in the rotation. Skipping a workout means they have the potential of missing out on the first line, starting 11, top 7, and so on.
Student-athletes are forced to ingrain this mentality, prioritizing their sport over everything else. Rather than addressing the reasons as to why they are feeling unmotivated, they are forced to push through the workouts and skip the necessary activities (eating, sleeping, etc.) in their daily life. Society and expectations push these athletes beyond insane measures with hopes of manufacturing a perfect student-athlete. One who is expected to excel in academics because they have tutors; one who is expected to be good at their sport because they play at an elite level; one who is expected to not only abide by, but also improve, societal expectations because they have some thousand followers on Instagram.
It’s hard to realize that the benefits of college athletics often play a role in the mental health epidemic that has taken over the lives of student-athletes. They are given resources that are broadcasted nationally, so that every person interested knows about the benefits available to student-athletes. People tend to assume that just because these athletes have been so fortunate with what they have been given, that immediately translates into their success and so-called perfect lives, both in relation to their physical and mental wellbeing. So, what does this mean for athletes? Well, the minute something is not feeling right, or they are having a tough day, or they are not performing at their best, people begin to develop perspectives that are unfair and misleading. Comments and retweets populate the internet of this athlete doing this, and that one doing that. How they are not taking full advantage of their college careers or they are not pushing themselves enough, and so on. Student-athletes are taken one notch down the ladder because they can’t juggle everything that comes with being a student-athlete.
This all culminates in the final point of mental health. If someone were to bring up the idea of mental health a century ago, who knows what comments they would receive. But, we, as a society have grown and changed in a multitude of ways. Cultures and systems have changed. Laws and regulations have changed. Ideas and values have changed. It is also time for people to change with the times. It is time to stop treating STUDENT athletes as robots working in an assembly line to provide maximum output for the NCAA. It is time for people to practice simple compassion and understanding, like when they are thinking of making that next harsh comment on the starting quarterback’s Instagram. It is time for society, as a whole, to open its eyes to the harsh realities of college athletics.
While my role as a content creator will continue, this epidemic cannot. My job is to make athletes and teams look good, but there needs to be a reality check for us all. We cannot see half the challenges student-athletes face, as they muster up a smile for the camera, go to work every day, push themselves to the point of no return. Teams, communities, and fans all have the responsibility to take on an even greater role in working with student-athletes to dive deeper into their lives and make them feel seen, more than any wide-angle lens ever could.
Special Thanks to: Justin Bobb, Jordan McNeese, & Maggie Munson