Finding their voice
The national Student-Athlete Advisory Committee will celebrate its 25th anniversary in August, marking a passage to adulthood for one of the Association’s top success stories of the past two decades.
Much has changed since 1989, when the membership established the committee at the 83rd annual Convention. Most obviously, the Association now has three SAACs, one for each division, a result of the 1997 membership restructuring. The system these days is underpinned by a system of institutional and conference SAACs that were largely conceptual 20 years ago. Perhaps most importantly, the student-athletes have changed the nature of their advisement. In the early years, the model was “speak when spoken to.” Nowadays, student-athletes review all legislation and occasionally offer some of their own.
But to evaluate student-athlete representation solely on its legislative effectiveness misses a larger point. Besides being good for the Association, the national SAACs have become highly effective as a leadership-development opportunity for the 82 student-athletes who serve each year. The experience is meaningful and at times intense, but the rewards are great. Some SAAC alumni have vectored their careers into athletics administration as a result of their participation, and many others have benefited from the skills that were learned during the experience.
Better legislation and quality leadership development: That’s quite an outcome for an effort that began with the most modest of expectations.
The attitude surrounding the creation of the national Student-Athlete Advisory Committee in 1989 was, to put it mildly, cautious.
“The committee would receive information and explanations of the Association’s activities in legislation and review and react to topics referred to it by other NCAA committees and the Council,” said NCAA Council member Cecil “Hootie” Ingram as he introduced Proposal No. 77. “The committee would serve in an advisory capacity and would serve as an important resource to the Association in obtaining input on the appropriate issues.”
Given those marching orders, it’s not surprising that the committee foundered for several years. It was too small (16 members − eight from Division I and four each from Divisions II and III), too fractured (four representatives for each of four national regions) and rather ill-directed (one committee trying to track developments in all three divisions).
The SAAC’s voice was so muted in the early going that a few successes at the 1994 Convention merited a mention in The NCAA News for their novelty. “They ... came to realize that when they spoke, they were speaking for the entire committee and not just themselves,” staff liaison Janet Justus said at the time.
Looking back, it seems as though the concept of representation should have been obvious from the beginning, but Justus – now a senior associate athletics director at UMKC – said it took the better part of five years to get student-athletes to that point.
“It did take a long time to get the student-athletes to think of themselves as representatives,” she said. “The SAACs are so successful now that it’s hard to imagine that they ever struggled with that, but you have to remember that they never had been asked to serve in that role before. And those at the beginning didn’t have any peer mentors, which is very important.”
The individual state of mind was not unique to the national SAAC. Never having had a voice, student-athletes everywhere really didn’t know how to articulate their needs.
Jaime Fluker, now an NCAA assistant director of student-athlete development and liaison to the Division II SAAC, recalled her student days as an SAAC representative at Carthage.
“We used to talk about facilities and complain about how things were,” she said. “It took a SAAC advisor to say you can complain, or you can come up with solutions to provide to the athletics director. Well, once we had better facilities, they came back to us and said, ‘Now what?’ ”
The way that student-athletes have met that “now what?” challenge on local, conference and national levels is one of the great untold stories of college sports. The days of complaining are mostly gone. For some time now, serious student-athlete advocacy has been taking place.
“There was a large responsibility put on our plate to represent a group of people,” said Mike Piscetelli, a former Division I SAAC chair and now an assistant athletics director at Wake Forest, his alma mater. “You’re coming from a conference where you might have 10,000 student-athletes, and when you get to the chair or vice chair position, you’re speaking on behalf of 100,000 or 120,000 student-athletes division-wide.”
The word “speaking” is significant. Student-athletes do not get a final vote on legislation in Divisions I, II or III. The absence of a vote was a sticky point in the early days of SAAC, and the issue lingers years later.
“SAAC is the only group that lobbies and does just as much work, and sometimes more work, and still doesn’t get a recorded vote,” said former Division III vice chair Doug Tima, now a teacher and coach in Dublin, Ohio. “It’s just something I never understood.”
Brian Alas, a former Division I SAAC member from Richmond who now works for PricewaterhouseCoopers, echoed the sentiment. “Even though right now we have one member of our committee sit on the Leadership and Legislative Councils and offer opinions,” he said, “it would be a big step for SAAC if we were given a vote that actually was counted during the process instead of trying to play the role of attorney, so to speak, and kind of convince the jury of your point of view.”
Others believe that the student-athletes are more effective without a vote.
“Your voice carries more weight because people might not listen to you if they believe you can speak with your vote,” said Becky Ahlgren-Bedics, a staff liaison to the Division II SAAC from 2001 to 2007. “But because you don’t have that vote, you can be liaisons and say, ‘Oh, we don’t have a vote. Do you see it our way? Could you see it our way?’ ”
Regardless of whether the absence of a vote is right or wrong, there’s no doubting that the persuasive skills of student-athletes have grown over time. Most credit goes to the student-athletes themselves, but they are quick to praise administrative professionals who are called upon to provide an unusually high level of support.
Not only are staff members required to accelerate the student-athletes from 0 to 60 on legislative matters, they also must mentor them on how to interact with high-level athletics administrators and even college presidents. All the while, they also deal with difficult life moments. Ahlgren-Bedics recalled deaths of parents and an especially depressing experience with a wrestler who wouldn’t eat because he was trying to make weight.
“I don’t think people understand how intense the SAAC world is,” Ahlgren-Bedics said.
That intensity is amplified by a learning curve that is more often a right angle than a gentle slope.
“It takes a certain kind of person,” Tima said. “I came in and I had been at one or two meetings at my league level, and I’m elected the rep and next thing you know, I’m in San Antonio and I’m debating legislation that’s going to affect 400,000 student-athletes.”
The secret weapon in strengthening student-athlete credibility has been to have those involved understand various sides of every issue.
“We broke issues down from every angle,” Piscetelli said of his time as chair, “because we knew if we looked at it from opposing sides, when it came time to get in front of administrators, to speak in forums or comment upon it, it was like being part of a debate team. Having that deeper thought, instead of looking from 30,000 feet but really digging deep into the issue, we really knew what we wanted as a Division I athletics committee.”
Not only has such knowledge helped with debate, it has helped the student-athletes understand the complexities of the administrative world and created respect at the top.
“Those of us who sat on the Presidents Council were not always as selfless or as neutral in our perspectives as those young people are,” said Kathryn Martin, former chancellor at Minnesota Duluth, who worked with the Division II SAAC for a year. “That is to say, many times, subjects came to the table, and they would greatly advantage one or two schools. I never saw that happen at SAAC.”
That ability to act as one reflects how SAAC members learned to channel their competitive instincts.
“I don’t think it was ever about winning,” said Crissy Kaesebier Schluep, a former Division II SAAC member and now an NCAA assistant director of public and media relations. “It was about doing the right thing. People sometimes get in those situations, and they want to win at all costs. They don’t really care what the prize is, but I never had that sense of ‘we just want to beat the vote for the sake of winning.’ ”
But they did want to win for their causes.
“We were a competitive group of young people,” Piscetelli said. “Our goal was to somehow get every piece of legislation to go the way that we wanted it to go. We wanted a high hit rate if you will.”
And if the votes didn’t go their way?
“Because they’re trained to win,” Fluker said, “the next thing they do is go back to the drawing board. They ask us, ‘Who do we need to talk to about this, and what group do we need to bring this to?’ So for them, it’s just a barrier for the moment, but they’re moving on to the next step.”
And when it all comes together, the effect can be almost magical.
Ahlgren-Bedics recalled a 2005 Division II issue about eligibility. “The debate was should seniors be able to transfer and play immediately,” she said. “A lot of people on the floor were saying this is a student-athlete well-being issue, that these kids work so hard and they get up to their senior year and someone comes in and takes their place.”
But the SAAC was bothered by the impression that Division II student-athletes would not be able to hold their positions against Division I transfers and that the transfers could be denied the opportunity to compete against Division II incumbents.
The responsibility for speaking to the issue fell to Jaime Petsch from St. Cloud State.
“Her stance, and the stance of the committee, was ‘I’ve worked for three years, and if I’m not good enough to play and I’m not going to help the team and some senior transfers in, then bring ’em on!’ ” Ahlgren-Bedics said. “And that’s exactly what she was debating, whether she should say that. And when she did say ‘Bring ’em on!’ on the Convention floor, there were cheers – people reacting like, ‘That’s right!’ I have goose bumps right now just remembering it.”
The student-athletes made a difference that day, just as they have on many days since the Association proceeded with the SAAC concept.
A toast on the 25th birthday seems appropriate, so here goes: “To the SAAC: Good students, good work and good results.”
Serious business at the local level
Jaime Fluker recently experienced the maturation of student-athlete representation at the local level courtesy of the SAAC at Carthage, her alma mater.
Fluker, an Associate Director of Leadership Development at the NCAA, returned to Carthage this spring for a student affairs symposium. During her college days, she had served as a member of the campus SAAC, but what she saw in 2010 was dramatically different than it was a decade ago:
“We went into SAAC elections. Now, when I was there, I could recall that it wasn’t that big a deal and the only people who were there were the people who were on the committee. If we had 20 people in the room, it was because we had pizza and soda.
“At this meeting, it was standing room only. Everybody made sure they were there for the vote because it mattered to them. It was no longer just a popularity vote – a case of well, ‘we know the baseball student-athlete better than we know the track student-athlete, so I guess we’ll vote for him.’
“It was serious. They had their speeches lined up, and it was a really big deal. You saw that transition from ‘somebody made me go’ to now ‘we realize that we are a force on campus and we can positively impact change.’
“I walked into the meeting and said, ‘This is great.’ I had never seen this before.”
NYIT athletics director has made it a point to recruit national SAAC alumni
Three former national SAAC members worked here at New York Institute of Technology as graduate assistants: John Dano, Juan Bovell and Erin Merz.
John and Erin worked in our CHAMPS/Life Skills program facilitating projects such as community-service initiatives, community-engagement projects, SAAC oversight, fundraising, promotions, media relations and alumni development. Juan worked with our sports-medicine staff and also in some of the same areas as John and Erin.
When I was a member of the Division II Management Council, I obtained firsthand knowledge of how the broad perspectives and experiences of SAAC members could enhance the thinking of our student-athletes and our staff/coaches.
Each of these young people was very successful working at NYIT. They established programs that we currently use, such as “Night Out on the Bears,” which is our community-engagement program (Dano). We won an award for that event two years ago. Erin was extremely creative and developed a concept that we are about to roll out called “Suits and Sneakers Soiree,” a social fundraiser. It is a live band event with a few comedians and refreshments, and we are expecting a nice crowd for the event.
If am able to secure funding, I will once again attempt to recruit talented young people from the national SAAC to work as graduate assistants in my department. They each had great interpersonal skills and knew how to handle themselves in many different situations.
Because of their experience and exposure with the national SAAC, they were able to provide an enhanced perspective on a range of concepts. Their SAAC background was a key factor in me recruiting them to NYIT, and if I had the funding, I would try to recruit more national SAAC members for my institution. As we move forward, I hope to be in a position to recruit more national SAAC members to NYIT.
– Clyde Doughty Jr. (pictured)