When the presidents on the Division I Board of Directors came into the boardroom on Jan. 14, they were poised to continue the fast-moving changes that began with the presidential retreat last August.
Having just spent two hours at breakfast with student-athletes representing almost all the Division I conferences, they also were armed with the unique perspective that only the student-athletes could give them. In small groups, the presidents and student-athletes discussed the reform agenda and what the Board would vote on later that day.
The student-athletes took full advantage of that opportunity, and several presidents said their opinions on certain issues – and ultimately their votes – were swayed by their interaction with the people those decisions affect the most.
“If you don’t hear the voices of those most affected by the changes you are making, you get all these unintended consequences that could have been avoided. The most important thing we do I believe wholeheartedly is to protect the welfare of these student-athletes,” said Wright State President David Hopkins. “We have to create more opportunities to hear their stories, to understand their challenges and to understand the impact of the policy changes we are making.”
Oregon State President Ed Ray, who also chairs the Executive Committee, said the discussions with the student-athletes, both at the breakfast and during the Division I Issues Forum, informed the Board’s thinking leading up to the votes.
“In my opinion, student input was critical to leading us to the right decisions,” he said, noting that on one occasion, the student-athlete input helped improve language in a proposal, and on other occasions swayed opinion significantly.
“The conversations are helpful in the sense that one can help others best if the people you are trying to help can express their own opinions of proposed changes,” Ray said. “More than once I learned that policies intended to benefit students were seen quite differently by them.”
The student-athletes were thrilled that the Board was so receptive to their messages. Maddie Salamone, lacrosse student-athlete from Duke and vice chair of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said that when she and her colleagues talked, the presidents really listened.
“We were able to sway what they thought based on our experiences and the impact we believed some of the policies they were considering would have,” Salamone said. “While we agree with their initiative and the sentiment to benefit student-athletes, they could do things differently.”
The SAAC has a representative on each of the presidential working groups, and the student-athletes aren’t afraid to influence the policies and proposals as they are formed.
Curtis Schickner, a baseball student-athlete from UMBC and another vice chair of the SAAC, said he feels the student-athletes not only have been included in the process but also have been an important and respected part of reform. Schickner serves on the Collegiate Model – Rules working group.
“I’m the only student-athlete in there, and I’m the only one who knows. When I speak up, everyone looks up and listens to what I’m saying. I feel like my voice is really making an impact,” he said. “For me, it’s picking and choosing our battles … Ultimately, they are making these changes for student-athlete well-being and to make sure our experience is as good as it can be. Taking our view into consideration is just as important as any other group within the NCAA.”
SAAC chair Eugene Daniels, football student-athlete at Colorado State, said the student-athletes feel empowered to speak up if they disagree, and they feel respected when they do it.
“I think (the governance representatives) respect us because we’re so well-informed, intelligent and hard-working,” Daniels said. “That’s what it takes to be a student-athlete.”
That dedication is the reason some of the presidents stay so involved with NCAA governance. Middle Tennessee State President Sidney McPhee, in his second term on the Board in the last decade, said interacting with the student-athletes has had a significant impact not only on the legislation the Board adopts (or defeats) but also on him personally.
“Listening to these bright young people who are doing wonderful things on their campuses and are committed to academics and athletics gives me that extra energy and motivation to rejuvenate me,” McPhee said.
Ray called the conversations with SAAC student-athletes “informative and inspiring.”
“The conversations have been very rewarding for the presidents by both helping us improve legislation important to students and by providing us with an opportunity to meet exceptional young people doing extraordinary service for others, while balancing their academic studies and engagement in competitive athletics,” he said. “There are cynics who claim the amateur athlete model never existed and that intercollegiate athletics is not worth fighting for, but these young people give the presidents real confidence that what we seek to protect and perfect in the NCAA is very much worth fighting for and communicating to the broader public.”