Trigger warning: This story contains content about suicide and mental health challenges.
Most people know Colton Underwood from The Bachelor, as he starred in season 23, but many do not recall that he was an athlete before. He played football in the early 2010s at Illinois State University (ISU), where he excelled on the field. He posted 215 career tackles at ISU before stints with multiple NFL teams, including the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.
While Underwood shined on the field, he held darkness inside. He battled with his gay identity, and the pressure to stay closeted weighed him down. He exerted most of his effort into football to distract him from concealing his sexuality.
“I didn’t feel safe or supported in my sport and also in my locker room at my university to really come out of the closet,” Underwood said. “That obviously led to its own complications in my own mental health and my form of my sexual identity, but also my identity wrapped in football.”
When his football career ended, he felt he needed to take his pressure elsewhere. And Underwood did so on The Bachelor. He tried to convince himself that he was straight by appearing on the show.
“I landed on The Bachelor trying to do a form of self-conversion therapy to myself,” Underwood said. “My thought process was, the further along I get in a relationship with a woman, the straighter I will become.”
Afterward, he came to terms with his identity and shared it publicly last year in an interview with Good Morning America. Now, Underwood is trying to help college athletes facing situations similar to his.
Last Wednesday, he spent the day in Washington D.C. on Capitol Hill, representing his Colton Underwood Legacy Foundation. Underwood was there to lobby congress members for the TEAMS Act.
The bill is an “innovative mental health program” designed to assist college athletes in the United States. It would allow the Secretary of Education to fund mental health programs in schools and enhance training for coaches and staff to help athletes in need. The language of its draft is loose, allowing for creativity in the final version.
A team of current and former college athletes joined Underwood’s efforts on Capitol Hill. They told their mental health stories to congress members to persuade them of the TEAMS Act. And this trigged some congress members to recall their own connections to mental health.
Former The Ohio State University football player Harry Miller is one of the athletes who described his tale.
When Miller played for the Buckeyes, he battled a mental health crisis. He told his head coach Ryan Day about his intent to commit suicide, and Day immediately directed him to a team of doctors. After a few weeks, Miller tried to return to football but ultimately decided to medically retire to focus on his mental health. Now, he credits the support he received at Ohio State and from Day for his well-being and life.
“Without infrastructure, I wouldn’t be able to talk about [my mental health journey now]. I would have just committed suicide,” Miller said. “So very important having that in place to act immediately.”
One goal of the TEAMS Act is to promote structured support systems at colleges and universities, and Miller’s story is an example of a system working. He tells his story to encourage college athletes to take steps to control their mental health.
The other athletes advocating for reform with Underwood have also become regular advocates for well-being.
Cailin Bracken, who plays lacrosse at Vanderbilt, has brought attention to the topic in her “A Letter to College Sports.” She published the story on Morgan’s Message, an organization looking to increase conversations about mental health and eliminate the stigma around the topic. Her story reached many of her peers and inspired some of them to share their stories. And she is glad her message motivated them.
“I do owe [Morgan’s Message] for a good portion of my career at this point because of the way that they gave me a platform to speak about these things,” she said. “After I published that piece, with Morgan’s Message, I have seen 30 other pieces that have essentially said the same thing.”
Bracken has also become a contact for her peers if they need advice about caring for their well-being.
Sarah Fuller, who played soccer at Vanderbilt and was the first woman to play football in a power five game, has also shared her story. She considered committing suicide even as her historic achievement grew in popularity, but she took time off to help her mental health.
Byron Perkins, the first openly gay football player at a historically black college and university (HBCU), told his coming out story to inspire others’ courage.
These athletes are examples of positive outcomes, but they know there is work to be done. College athletes’ mental exhaustion, anxiety, and depression rates have increased 1.5 to twice more than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are overwhelmed with the balance of competition, practice, academics, personal relationships, and more.
While the bill is not a complete solution, the group is advocating for it as a step forward to prevent some devastating stories.