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Former secretary of state urges athletics practitioners to remember their mission

Condoleezza Rice, recipient of the NCAA President's Gerald R. Ford Award, addresses NCAA Convention attendees

Describing intercollegiate athletics as “a trust” to be handed down to future generations, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday told nearly 1,000 athletics administrators, college presidents and student-athletes gathered for the NCAA Convention in San Antonio they must recommit to the integrity of college sports and remember that the education at its center can be transformative for a young life.

Rice, now the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, is also a member of the College Football Playoff Committee and a regular at Stanford’s home football games. She received the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award at Thursday’s keynote luncheon, then addressed Convention attendees at the first full gathering of this year’s Convention, where representatives from NCAA member schools and conferences gather to discuss and make decisions on some of the biggest issues in college sports.

The Ford Award is named in recognition of Gerald Ford, the 38th U.S. president and a member of two University of Michigan national champion football teams. The award honoree is selected by NCAA President Mark Emmert, who presented the award Thursday, and is given to individuals who have provided significant leadership as an advocate for college sports.

In her keynote address, Rice tied the work of college athletics administrators to a fundamental American value – the idea that where you come from doesn’t matter, but where you’re going does. “Those of us who love this enterprise love it, I think, for all the right reasons,” Rice said. “We want it to be recognized as an opportunity for students to excel in the classroom and to excel on the fields of play.”

Yet in the modern era of college sports, Rice noted, questions abound about its viability and even morality: Are college athletes being exploited? Is intercollegiate athletics just a business enterprise?

“These are challenging times,” Rice said. “And it would be easy to simply dismiss the questions that are being asked about the enterprise. It would be easy to be defensive and say, ‘Don’t you understand what we do and that what we do is important?’ But I’ve learned in my life that when there is criticism – and I’ve had a fair amount of criticism in my life – it’s good to go back and examine and look and to say, ‘Are we living up to who we purport to be?’”

Responsibility for answering those questions falls on several figures in college sports, Rice said. University administrators should offer admission only to students who are capable of handling the workload at their institutions. Coaches should ensure their student-athletes have ample time to be successful in class and other pursuits, not just in athletics. College athletes themselves should follow their passions and pursue coursework that excites them, as opposed to just fitting it into their competition and practice schedules.

“It is critical, first and foremost, that we affirm what we mean, what we intend to be, what our highest aspirations are as the guardian of the trust that is intercollegiate athletics,” Rice said. “Why this enterprise is viable, why it is important, why it is right.”

Before the keynote luncheon, Rice met with about 90 college athletes from all three NCAA divisions who represent the student voice on national student-athlete advisory committees. She talked with them about how to execute a first job in a way that prepares them for the second step in their careers and reminded them that knowing how to recover from failure – a quintessential part of the athletic experience – can be a valuable skill in the workplace.

Afterward, as the students lined up for a group photo with Rice, Jordan Ashley, a senior and softball player at Division I Presbyterian College in South Carolina, angled for a spot next to Rice. “I want to be an athletics director, and I know that in all three divisions of the NCAA, only 20 percent are female, and in Division I, only 10 percent,” Ashley said. “She’s just a really empowering female, and she says a lot about following your passion, even if people are telling you that you can’t do it. She’s an inspiration to me.”

When Ashley found herself in the front row for the photo, she turned to Rice and said: “I worked really hard to get here.” The former secretary of state laughed with her and said: “You succeeded.”