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Gophers coaches P.J. Fleck, Richard Pitino worry about athletes’ mental heath during pandemic

Fleck feels there is a stigma unfairly cast on student-athletes during a global pandemic and he is concerned about their mental health as a result of feeling blame.

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Minnesota Gophers head coach Richard Pitino looks on during a timeout during the second half against the Green Bay Phoenix at Williams Arena on Nov. 25, 2020. Harrison Barden / USA TODAY Sports
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Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck has had to pick up the phone to call players with the news: They have contracted COVID-19.

Emotional disbelief has followed.

“They are crying on the phone,” Fleck said Monday for his KFAN radio show. “They have no idea how they got it.” Fleck summed up their reactions like this: “Coach, I’ve done everything right, I’ve done everything I’ve been asked to do. I have no idea how I got this and now I’ve got to sit out 21 days. I’ve worked so hard for what is going on.”

The Minnesota football team has reported 23 student-athletes and 26 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus since Nov. 19. After playing five straight games to start the delayed and shortened season, the 49-person outbreak has caused the U to cancel back-to-back games against Wisconsin on Nov. 28 and Northwestern on Saturday.

Fleck’s radio show last week consisted of him venting/ranting about the outbreak and how he feels there is a stigma unfairly cast on student-athletes during a global pandemic and his concerns about their mental health as a result of feeling blame.

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“I think that is what the narrative is,” Fleck said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about maybe this interview because I don’t like that narrative. I’m not just talking about Minnesota players. I’m talking about players all over the country. We have (roughly 6,000) people (Sunday) alone who contracted COVID-19 in the state of Minnesota. Why are my (players) at fault?”

Fleck said the program’s medical team vets the origins of a player’s or staff member’s contraction of the virus.

“Nobody is doing anything wrong because we have looked at that,” Fleck said. “Is there something that some people were at? We’ve looked at all that. Our players are not at fault, and I would never blame them for something like this that’s in a pandemic. I know people want answers. I apologize just as a head coach that our fans aren’t able to see football.”

Gophers’ men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino, whose team shut down for roughly two weeks during an outbreak in November, started the season on time last week and shares similar mental-heath concerns as Fleck.

“It’s real,” Pitino said. “We tell them over and over again to communicate with us. Besides being there or telling them I love them and I feel for them. … We’ve got to let them know we are here for them and can get them help.”

All U student-athletes have mental-health counselors within the athletic department to call on for help.

Pitino acknowledged added stress and uncertainty is, obviously, not unique to U teams during the pandemic. It could be fear over your health or a family member’s and friend’s health, concern over a job status or anxiety over a child doing distance learning at home.

“I think as you get older, you realize how to get release in life from stress,” Pitino said. “Whether it’s to go for a walk, work out and exercise, glass of wine at night, whatever it is. Read a book. I don’t know if young people quite know that. We try to educate them as much as we can because I don’t think they know.”

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Gophers forward Jarvis Omersa said they had a team talk Wednesday and reflected about how intertwined they have become this year, sometimes by necessity because teammates (and coaches) are essentially the only people they come in close contact with.

“The greatest thing is this year’s team is very like this,” Omersa said as he intertwined his fingers. “It feels super family like. It’s always felt like that, but it’s almost abnormally more this year, which is so great. We always come together and hang out after games or after practice and what not, so it’s fun, just keeping each other company and trying to entertain ourselves. And we got to stick to our group, but it’s nice, it works out for us.”

Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said he has relied on his faith in God and the comfort that provides him through an especially tough year that includes his father, Ted, going through a successful bout with brain cancer.

“It’s not like I’m a superhuman, I have hard days too, but what always helps is having that perspective that being able to pray and have people there for me who can always pick me up,” Morgan said. “But it’s casting those anxieties, whatever you may call it, onto the Lord too. That has obviously been really big for me, honestly.”

Fleck said this trying year has made him a more empathetic coach.

“I feel like I’m different now than I was six months ago,” he said before the program shut down in late November. “But I’m not perfect, and I’m constantly doing everything I can to be better. But I’ve listened to players more than I’ve ever listened to them, and I’ve listened to them a lot. These are your children. These are your sons, and they’re all dealing with things differently. … All those things add up, and everyone thinks everything should just be OK, and sometimes it’s not.”

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