I was watching the Tennessee vs Kentucky men’s college basketball game on ESPN around 8:30 p.m. on Saturday night and a reporter speaking to camera during a time-out caught my attention. ESPN correspondent Maria Taylor was reporting courtside, the story of two University of Tennessee basketball players, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. She described their journeys since freshman year where they “transformed themselves” from what one player described as “roley poley” to elite players with body fat percentage below 10%, exactly “what the NBA is looking for.” On the left side of the screen, shirtless before-and-after photos of these young men were displayed showing evidence of the transformation that spanned 3-4 years of time to defined 6-pack abs and bulging pecs. The reporter quoted the athletes’ incoming freshman year weights, pounds lost, and body fat percentages. She reported that Schofield had gotten his body fat down to 6%. How did they do it? It was reported that they did “3-a-days or 4-a-days with the strength and conditioning coach” and that they “held themselves accountable by texting each other pictures of what they were eating.”
“Great story!” proclaimed the two male commentators up in the press box at the end of Taylor’s report. One went on to add some additional color to the story. Apparently, when Williams was a freshman, his mom sent him a care package containing 50 bags of buttered popcorn. Tennessee Basketball Head Coach Rick Barnes got wind of the package, so he intercepted it. He reportedly “put Williams on the treadmill and then walked up behind him eating the popcorn!” The commentators had a good LOL (laugh out loud) about that and made a few more off the cuff comments about Coach “making his point.”
The eating disorder professional in me was aghast. So was the mother in me. This is madness! And it isn’t even March!!
What am I outraged about? Let’s take a step back and break this down.
First, this feature made a purposeful, planned news report on prime time TV on ESPN during an NCAA college basketball game to promote body shaming, body dissatisfaction and discontent marketed at young male athletes. This is irresponsible reporting that shows a lack of understanding of who the viewing audience includes, youths and adolescents who play sports, and their parents. The messages sent to young boys and parents watching this report are direct, explicit, and dangerous to their well-being. Rates of eating disorders in males and male athletes are on the rise. Body dissatisfaction and drive to achieve the muscular ideal are two major contributors to eating disorders in boys and men. I would argue that the choice to air this report in the context of a televised game was even more irresponsible and potentially damaging than the relentless body shaming messages and diet culture promotions that come through social media on a daily basis. The viewing audience that tunes in to watch college basketball on ESPN is far different than the audience choosing to follow diet and exercise social media accounts.
This report leaves viewers believing that performance in sport (basketball, in this case) is associated with lower body weight and body fat percentage below 10%. The endorsement of this target by the NBA makes it sound official and definitive. The truth is that there is little correlation between body fat percentage and performance in sport. In fact, when this report ran and later at half time, Tennessee was trailing Kentucky by almost 10 points…
This report quoted personal information (weights, pounds lost and body fat percentage data) that sets targets for youth, adolescent and collegiate athletes to aspire to. These numbers, and recommendations to track these numbers are extremely dangerous and can be triggering for those who are vulnerable to eating and exercise disorders. Collegiate and professional athletes are role models for youth and adolescent athletes. When reporters make this personal information available, they inspire young athletes to achieve unrealistic ideals; ideals that are not appropriate for their personal stages of growth, maturity and development.
This report encouraged a variety of disordered behaviors including constant comparing with others (food choices and meal content) and overtraining (3-a-days and 4-a days, referring to the number of daily strength and conditioning sessions these athletes were doing on top of daily hours of practice on the basketball court itself). While “dieting” was never mentioned, it was certainly implied in this report. The story about the buttered popcorn being deemed by the Coach as being off limits for a college athlete endorses a “good food/bad food” dichotomy and restrictive eating. Dieting and overtraining contribute to RED-S, relative energy deficiency in sport. This condition predisposes athletes to eating disorders, injury, dehydration, and suboptimal performance along with mental health stress, anxiety and depression. Comparing oneself to others is a dangerous practice that actually spreads unhealthy beliefs and habits related to food, exercise and body dissatisfaction.
The behavior of the male commentators laughing over the popcorn story supports the stereotypes and stigma associated with male sports. It is mocking the seriousness of what could be a life-threating situation since eating disorders are associated with death and death by suicide. The commentators are suggesting that the coach’s behavior could be the norm in a collegiate sports environment. It endorses behavior which truly could be considered body shaming, public humiliation, bullying or, at best, misplaced authority. Does a coach have the right to steal an athlete’s care package, control an athlete’s snack choice and tease him in public? One could imagine that this story would never have run if the athletes were female given the heightened sensitivity to eating disorders and body image issues in female athletes. However, choosing to run this story about male athletes shows a complete lack of sensitivity to the fact that males and male athletes also experience eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. The jovial laughter of the commentators support the stereotypes and stigma that “this isn’t an issue for guys.” Making light of the situation simply suggests that this is all just a part of the game and the culture of men’s sport. Stereotypes and stigma present barriers to male athletes seeking treatment for eating and exercise concerns.
Finally, there was absolutely no mention of a nutrition professional involved in the “transformation” or the oversight of either of these athletes. The coach was named as the “food police” and the strength and conditioning coach was identified as the supervisor of the training regimen responsible for the transformation. I was left wondering, “Does Tennessee have a sports dietitian?” The University of Tennessee sports medicine website shows a full staff of six physicians and 15 licensed athletic trainers. No Registered Dietitians (RDs) were listed on the site. Hmmmm… knowing that the website of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA.org) lists all collegiate and professional sports organizations that employ full-time RDs, I looked for Tennessee. Turns out, they employ four RDs inside Tennessee athletics! What a missed opportunity to report on the good work of the sports dietitian in these athlete’s cases to demonstrate that a nutrition professional was on the case to monitor the situation, determine safe body weight goals, and ensure nutritional adequacy to prevent RED-S. Or maybe they weren’t? From how this was reported, the role of the sports dietitian was not even part of the conversation. That’s because everyone assumes the coach and the strength coach are qualified to capably run all aspects of the sport.
This has long been my concern in sports, “Who’s in charge of nutrition?” Responsibility for nutrition advice and overseeing athletes’ diets, training and weight goals is traditionally left in the hands of coaches and strength coaches because dietitians are not integral members of the support network around athletes. Yet, coaches and strength coaches have no formal or mandated training in nutrition, weight management, or how to recognize disordered eating, eating disorders or RED-S. According to the CPSDA, fewer than 10% of NCAA collegiate athletics departments employ a full-time sports dietitian. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
So viewers beware! This report is an example of March Madness gone awry. Don’t be misled by the portrayal of body transformation supposedly tied to nothing but success. You are being shown a shiny veneer of two sculpted student-athletes, achieved at what cost? You have no idea what is happening on the inside. The NCAA’s most pressing issue to attend to is student-athlete mental health. Since the 2014 release of its report, Mind, Body and Sport, the NCAA has elevated athletes’ emotional well-being to the top of its strategic agenda. Actions that promote dieting, overtraining, eating disorders, injury and mental health distress are counter to the NCAA’s goals and ideals. For all these reasons, this ESPN report aired during a prime time college basketball game needs to be exposed as a piece of irresponsible journalism.
Dr. Quatromoni is a senior consultant for Walden Behavioral Care and one of the nation’s top minds on the intersection of sports nutrition and eating disorders. As a registered dietitian, she has more than a decade of experience working with athletes with disordered eating and has published several papers on both clinical experiences and qualitative research on recovery experiences of athletes. Dr. Quatromoni is the Department Chair of Health Sciences and a tenured associate professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Boston University where she maintains an active, funded research program. In 2004, she pioneered the sports nutrition consult service for student-athletes at Boston University. Dr. Quatromoni was recently named a 2016 Outstanding Dietetics Educator from the Nutrition and Dietetic Educators and Preceptors (NDEP) Council. She earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Nutrition from the University of Maine at Orono and her Doctorate in Epidemiology from the Boston University School of Public Health.