Pressure is nothing new for college football players, and particularly not at Alabama. There have always been pressures on and off the field that accompany the expectations associated with being part of one of the nation’s best football programs.
But pressures for players have also changed, and, in some cases, grown.
“The pressures you deal with as a player are significantly higher than they were when I was a player, and that was only seven years ago,” former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. “It hasn’t been that long, and the world is completely different today than it was just a handful of years ago.”
The traditional pressures that have always been there for student-athletes still exist, too. Players have to balance time spent studying with time training, practicing and in team meetings. There’s pressure from competition in practice. Some players may feel pressure to provide for their families by making it to the National Football League. None of those factors have diminished for athletes.
There’s also the omnipresent pressure that athletes place on themselves.
“I think the pressure comes from within,” said Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who played at Alabama in 1995-96. “So I think it motivates a lot of the great ones.”
Players at Alabama face their own kind of pressure, too. That comes with the territory when a program wins five national championships since 2009.
“For us we always have to be like on our A game,” senior offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher said. “We can’t take a week off regardless of who we’re playing. You know, if we’re playing a team, whatever it’s like, we can’t take that week off because the next week we could be playing, that guy that wants a shot at our heads as well.”
Players used to be exposed to fans in limited interaction from the sidelines at a game or when they were spotted on campus. But for players on social media, there’s almost no governor on those dealings.
“The biggest pressure they feel is the social media pressure,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We didn’t have that when I played and finished up (as a player) around ’99. You didn’t have all of the cameras on you constantly.”
Smart’s college career ended well before Facebook was founded in 2004, Twitter arrived in 2006 or Instagram launched in 2010. Traditional media has also grown since Smart was a player, with more scrutiny coming with increased coverage of college football as a whole.
McElroy, now an analyst and broadcaster for ESPN and the SEC Network, has shifted from being a player to being part of that coverage. The pressure never abated for him. There was scrutiny and criticism of players when he was an athlete, as always, but it can hit closer to home now.
“You had to go to a message board forum if you were going to see what people were actually saying about you,” he said. “Now, in today’s day and age, the social media era, I get done with a game and check my phone and I’m getting told to go jump off a cliff. It’s just different now.”
Those new pressures don’t show any signs of dissipating, either. The old and new sources of pressure seem to add up for this era of athletes.
It wasn’t as big a part of the culture for previous players, but it’s something today’s athletes carry around in their pockets.
“I think we’re a lot quicker to criticize in society than we are to love and appreciate,” McElroy said. “I think that’s a little bit unfortunate, but you know what you sign up for. You know that if you’re going to go play quarterback at Georgia or Alabama or USC, you’re going to be operating under a very powerful microscope. You kind of embrace that and appreciate that and know that all the times that you’re getting heckled and criticized, hopefully on the other side of the coin, after a great performance you’re getting loved up and appreciated.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.