When multi-million dollar facility upgrades, branding and sponsorships, and media exposure are among the top ways to solicit and retain recruits, it is easy to see why there are growing concerns about a student-athlete’s preparation for life after eligibility. En route to a degree, today’s student-athlete has access to more coaches, specialized facilities and trainers than probably ever thought necessary. But at what cost? As students and institutions continue to pursue expectations of being bigger, faster, stronger; the best program in the nation; the most innovative; having the industry’s latest everything; many have gotten away from the richest investment: in each other.
As the arms race continues, the NCAA and the member institutions need to continuously renew and reinforce their commitment to equipping student-athletes with skills to succeed throughout life. While athletic success may lead to financial stability and an abundance of equipment, gear, facility upgrades, additional specialists and trainers, etc., all the resources in the world don’t mean a thing if you don’t know what to do with them.
Upon hearing the term student-athlete, many people —student-athletes included— envision a life of a silver spoon. They think student-athletes get everything handed to them because of their athletic prowess; do not go to class because they are only on campus to try to “go pro”; take spots from people who actually want to learn, research cures to diseases, enact positive change in society, and so forth. Prevalent throughout collegiate athletics, especially around Division I, the folly of such stereotyping is toxic. The overemphasis on the material benefits of a student-athletes’ athletic experience establishes a culture that reinforces the big business behind intercollegiate athletics and leaves little room for a student’s growth and development through and outside of sport.
Gushing about students’ holistic development with little emphasis on actively preparing students to navigate the transitions into, through, and beyond their collegiate careers places student-athletes at a deficit. The focus should not be solely on what you can provide for your students, but what you can accomplish with and through them. With a focus on being a good student and being a good athlete, student-athletes rarely have time within their collegiate careers to focus on the things that will support their attainment of success beyond eligibility’s expiration.
Student-athletes are rarely able to value and use the resources designed to facilitate successful transitions throughout their collegiate athlete experience without that value being ingrained in the culture. In addition to incentivizing athletic excellence with rewards, gifts, and notoriety contributing to an unconscious superiority or entitlement complex, (Robinson, 2015)—also feeding the aforementioned negative stereotypes—athletics administrators need to construct a culture that values development and immersion in all that a collegiate experience [at your university] has to offer.
Within this culture: know WHO the student-athletes are—their demographics and desires; take INTEREST in what they want to do, to learn and the things needed to do so; acknowledge their NEEDS looking to research and best practices internal and external to your institutions and respond accordingly
ENGAGE one another to educate, develop, and grow together as a community. Set the expectation for student-athletes to invest in personal success, in addition to academic and athletic achievement, by providing opportunities to champion that development such as workshops, seminars, service learning and reflection, or simply opportunities to talk to coaches or administrators about life away from academics and athletics.
Regardless of the endowments and generated revenue, athletic departments cannot be everything to every one of their student-athletes. Why should they strive to be? In doing so, students are robbed of the experiences they will encounter during the transition to post-collegiate life. Resources like campus’ Career Center, leadership development teams, counseling professionals, transitional assistance programs, study abroad offices, community service, multicultural, or gender resource centers should be introduced as vital to the success of the student-athlete similar to upgrades and unveilings of athletic facilities and equipment. Collaboration across campus and within the surrounding community helps establish a culture providing students with greater access to the fullest potential of their collegiate experiences.
Student-athletes have access to many resources by being enrolled as students, but true accessibility lies in how the resources—people, places, things—are integrated into their collegiate life. Without the opportunity to explore these resources or time to engage areas outside of academics and athletics, intercollegiate athletics participation creates obstacles with potential long-term, catastrophic effects. Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” but if you do not know what to do with it, what did you learn? For this reason, it is not enough to provide student-athletes with access to buildings, equipment, or other resources all geared towards high-performance and achieving excellence.
There must be a willingness to train students in the use and integration of the resources available at the campus, conference, and national levels. Promote the use of additional resources and encourage student-athletes to value their personal and professional growth among their academic and athletic successes. Acknowledge your student-athletes’ multiple identities; invest in their interests; supply them with the resources to meet [and exceed] their needs while ensuring engagement in all that a collegiate student-athlete experience has to offer. Empower and enable your students to thrive throughout college and beyond, not just survive.
By JP Abercrumbie
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