The University of Maine will use a $640,038 disbursement from the NCAA to add a mental health program to its athletic department.

“We want to prioritize mental health care for our student-athletes,” said Lynn Coutts, a senior associate athletic director who is overseeing the implementation of the program.

This spring, the NCAA distributed a total of $200 million to nearly 350 Division I schools for the purpose of providing better support to student-athletes. The NCAA stipulated that the money has to be used on new programs or to enhance existing programs, meaning it could not be used to simply buy more equipment, hire more coaches, offer more scholarships or increase salaries.

“They gave us some flexibility,” said Karlton Creech, the athletic director at UMaine. “But we also needed to show some responsibility.”

The one-time disbursement went to schools that were active members of Division I in the 2015-16 school year, which is when the NCAA announced it was going to distribute the funds. The amount each school received was based on the number of athletic scholarships each school provided in the 2013-14 school year, multiplied by $3,291 (that value was reached by dividing the $200 million by 60,768.28 – the number of grants given by Division I schools that year).

Nine schools received more than $1 million, led by Ohio State, which received $1,329,575 based on 403.98 scholarships. Maine’s share, based on 194.47 scholarships, amounts to about 18 percent of the school’s $3,525,257 athletic budget.

“It will allow us to make some improvements we otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” said Creech. “Like a lot of schools at our level, there are plenty of opportunities where we can get better.”

From the beginning, Maine focused on a mental health component. “We ask these student-athletes to put a lot of time and effort into academics, sports performance, the physical part,” said Coutts. “It’s time we put a priority on the mental part of it. It’s the healthy body, healthy mind approach.”

School officials met with a newly-formed athlete group called the Elite 13 – representing the school’s athletic programs – throughout the year to discuss the direction of the athletic department. “Their input was invaluable,” said Creech. “They were very helpful, willing to talk, and helped steer us.”

Cailey Hutchinson, who just finished her sophomore season on the women’s hockey team and was a member of the Elite 13, said mental health was a subject the students stressed.

“Mental health often goes unnoticed. There were not as many outlets as we’d like,” said Hutchinson. “We have our coaches (to talk to), but a lot of times athletes don’t want to talk with coaches because then they seem vulnerable. (The coach’s) decisions make us happy or upset, if we play or not.

“So we want to get a sports psychologist on campus, maybe one for each sports team or a few for the entire department. It would be beneficial. It’s just an extra outlet for the athletes to have if they need someone to talk to.”

Jeffrey DeVaugh, a junior defensive back on the football team and also a member of the Elite 13, said many times an athlete isn’t comfortable talking to his coaches or teammates about a personal issue. “It would be a great thing to be able to get things off your mind,” he said. “School work, personal things, a lot can happen to affect you on the field. If a counselor is there, he can catch it early before it becomes bigger. It doesn’t have to be sports-related. A lot of things we go through aren’t sports-related.”

Maine officials hope to have the program in place by the fall. Coutts said the program will include more than just counseling for the students. She wants to educate coaches and support staff – “Anyone who has contact with our student-athletes” she said – in recognizing possible mental health issues among the athletes.

“We all need to know what to look for, how to direct people,” said Coutts. “We’re going to try to take a holistic look at the whole department. There’ll be some training, some chalk talk. It’s not just counseling kids who need it right now, but (learning) things you can do to try to prevent things from coming up.”

Coutts is working with Ryan Taylor, the school’s head athletic trainer, and Doug Johnson, the director of the UMaine Counseling Center, to come up with the appropriate program, which will include collaboration from both psychologists and psychiatrists.

“We’re trying to find a good fit,” she said. “We’re meeting with a lot of people, trying to put together a structure with layers.”

This would not just be a sports performance psychologist, but someone to counsel the athletes on how to deal with everyday life and its stresses.

“It’s not really performance-based, as sports go, but as people,” said Coutts. “How do we deal with anxiety? What’s going on in your life? There has to be a trust built. I think we have to become more cognizant of what’s going on in their lives.

“We talk about how much time we spend training and practicing and in study hall. Unless you live it, it’s hard to describe that to people. We’re going to do what we can to try to build people from the inside.

“Our coaches really know X’s and O’s, and I think we’re going to try to focus on how can we help you as people? That’s what that distribution is more for.”

The NCAA Division I Board of Governors approved the one-time distribution of $200 million a year ago, using funds liquidated from an NCAA quasi-endowment. Each school was required to submit a plan for spending its share, with some very specific guidelines. While Creech saw it as a very positive step, others see it differently.

Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, viewed the distribution as a way to put the NCAA in a better light and to “relieve the pressure (brought on by) the ongoing number of athletes’ complaints that have challenged NCAA rules.”

The NCAA has faced several legal challenges in recent years, from athletes at Northwestern University attempting to unionize to several anti-trust class action suits, the most well-known brought on by Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player who challenged the NCAA’s authority to use the images of former and current NCAA players for commercial purposes (such as promoting the NCAA basketball tournament). A District Court judge ruled in favor of O’Bannon, but the NCAA appealed the ruling, which was partly reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In February, the NCAA agreed to pay $208.7 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over scholarship maximums. However, the NCAA stated in a press release that it would “continue to vigorously oppose the remaining portion of the lawsuit seeking pay for play.”

Staurowsky has written papers and books about the plight of college athletes and the pressures they face. While she applauds the efforts of Maine and other schools, she said more needs to be done at a national level.

“No school is going to give that money away; no school is going to not accept it,” she said. “They’re going to do something, hopefully, really good with it, but at the same time it doesn’t address central issues.”

She added that real progress won’t be made until the NCAA recognizes “the pressures on (student-athletes) that are different from other students” and reforms the current system.

Scholarship athletes are expected to not only attend classes, but train year-round, practice, play games at home and on the road.

“Year in and year out, the athletic community continues to be very invested in insisting that college athletes have to be full-time students,” she said. “Given the time demands that are placed on them and the rigors of their sport, it really is a full-time job. It seems to me that there might be room for more creative problem-solving.”

She said Maine’s focus on mental-health issues was appropriate, given the stress and anxiety that student-athletes face.

Creech said university officials recognize those problems on a daily basis. “Division I athletes are being put out of their comfort zone in every area of life to become better,” he said.

This distribution of funds will go a long way toward making their lives better, he said, not just at Maine but after they leave.

“It’s an important step, one we’re thrilled to be able to (make) happen,” said Creech.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH