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Finding their voice

Athletes are effective advocates, but success took time

Crissy Kaesebier Schluep

SAAC Role: Division II vice chair, 2001 (Drury University)
Currently: Executive Communications Director, WellPoint

Our issue involved limits on telephone calls to signees during the period before they were enrolled. At the time, we used legislative grids that enabled us to get “votes” from each campus and conference. This was the first year we had implemented that system.

I remember the student-athletes were really passionate about this, and because of the grids, we felt like the support was well documented. But after the Legislation Committee and governance structure heard what we had to say, their response was like: “Thank you, but we’ve decided to go in a different direction.”

I remember we wrote down talking points that we were going to use at Convention. How funny is that? I remember being really anxious about maybe having to stand up and talk in front of several hundred people.

For the Convention business session, we all had debating points assigned to us. I remember standing there like it was yesterday. Front row, right side, maybe a couple of rows in. I remember what I was wearing. I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous in my entire life.

SAAC prepared lots of responses for points that no one ended up speaking on. But my particular topic did come up. I remember that moment of “Oh, I’m going to have to get up there and do this.”

I remember looking at Mike Racy, the Division II vice president, who was smiling at me to reassure me. It was like he was saying, “I promise you you’re going to be able to sit down eventually.”

The vote ended up going our way. We had been prepared to show no emotion about it, but there was a huge sense of relief. Everybody was very composed. We shared some side glances.

We thought that there was this system that had been put in place to hear the student-athlete voice, and it really never had been necessary, and then it was. I felt like we did a good job of preparing and articulating. Things went the student-athletes’ way, and it was just a nice feeling.

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).

Doug Tima

SAAC Role: Division III vice chair, 2008 (Otterbein College)
Currently: Physics and physical science teacher/assistant varsity football coach/head JV football coach Dublin (Ohio) Scioto High School

One of our most important issues was whether Division III coaches should be required to be trained in first aid and CPR.

SAAC members couldn’t believe this wasn’t already required. I’m a high school coach now, and I’m required by the state to be trained. Yet Division III athletes, competing at a higher level, didn’t have the same protection.

The legislation itself was simple. Today, it takes up only two lines in the Division III Manual. But when we put it up at the 2007 Convention, there was a lot of concern about legal liability. But we said, “What if a kid dies?” I told this to some presidents. I don’t know if it made them happy, but if I was a coach and was talking to a parent, I would want to say that
this horrible thing happened, but at least we had done as much as we could to be prepared.

The proposal was debated at length in 2007
before it was referred back to the competitive-safeguards committee. The next year, it came up again and was defeated.
I don’t think anybody objected to the spirit of the legislation. They just wanted to make sure they understood the legal ramifications.

But kids don’t care about legalities. They wanted to know that if they had a heart attack or collapsed on the field, someone there would be trained to save their life.

I was off the SAAC when the legislation finally passed in 2009. I had just proposed, and my wife and I were coming back from Niagara Falls. I was getting in the car for the ride home, and I got a phone call and someone told me, “You’re never going to believe what passed.”

It was a great day, all the way around.

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.”

Mike Piscetelli

SAAC Role: Division I chair, 2006 (Wake Forest University)
Currently: Assistant director of athletics, Wake Forest

In 2006, the Division I SAAC was convinced that text messages didn’t belong in the recruiting process. Texting has its place, but as a recruiting tool, it was perceived as intrusive and at times superficial. As SAAC chair, I felt a responsibility for us to deal with this matter.

The issue attracted so much media attention that our opposition was apparent to even casual observers. The not-so-obvious part was how seriously we took our responsibility. Before we talked with the likes of Management Council or Board of Directors, we would spend significant time in meeting rooms developing the student-athlete stance. How we articulated our position and the examples we used for lobbying on behalf of our peers were crucial to our success. We worked hard.

One other fact: The text-messaging issue had nothing to do with current student-athletes. After all, we had already been recruited. The issue involved prospective student-athletes. It’s one thing to care about factors that are pressing in your current situation, things like per diem or practice hours, but this proposal required us to step back and recognize that the committee was a part of something bigger than itself. That maturity came with the education the NCAA provided us and the comfort of working with passionate student-athlete advocates.

In the end, we were happy that the legislation passed and stood up to an override vote, but it was only one of many proposals we dealt with that year. We kept a close tally of the proposals that went in our favor, like pieces of a game. In a sense, it was like a competition. And we thrived on the competition. We never got too emotional after learning the results on a proposed piece of legislation as there was always more work to be done.

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.

Stormie Wells

SAAC Role: Division II member, 1997 (University of Northern Colorado)
Currently: Senior program manager at Ellucian

My first SAAC meeting started off with one of my most embarrassing moments.

My flight was delayed, and due to the delay I was late to our morning session. I walked in the door in jeans, while everyone else was dressed in business attire. This precipitated the founding of the Acclimation Guide for new SAAC members.

I joined the SAAC before federation, and our most pressing legislative issue at that time was primarily a Division I issue − the ability for student-athletes to work to earn up to full grant-in-aid. While we were concerned about federation, the creation of a Division II SAAC afforded us opportunities to focus on Division II-specific issues.

The NCAA’s federated structure was implemented my last year, and I served on the first Division II SAAC. The Division II Management Council-SAAC Summit was the division’s choice for creating dialogue between administrators and student-athlete representatives, and it became a very powerful communication vehicle. At that first meeting, we discussed a variety of important issues, including Title IX, diversity, attendance at competition and regionalization. We were able to come up with action plans to address those issues.

Most importantly, the summit provided then − and continues to provide today − a mechanism where the Management Council actively seeks out student-athlete feedback, listens to it closely and then carefully considers that feedback before taking action.

“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.”

Kayla Hinkley Billings

SAAC Role: Division III member, 2008 (University of New England)
Currently: Self-employed pediatric occupational therapist in Wells, Maine

One of my most exciting and interesting experiences was serving on the working group for Division III membership issues.

Division III was exploring different options that included forming a subdivision or starting an entirely new division due to our large membership numbers.

I remember our first meeting began early in the morning as we started exploring the numerous data. I felt overwhelmed at times. Some people felt the split was necessary, but others believed we were functioning as a strong division and should remain the same.

Since I had been a member of the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the student representative on the Division III Management Council, I could hold my own in the membership discussions and provide insight on how student-athletes would be affected.

Outside our meetings, the division was buzzing. Schools, administrators, coaches and athletes had varying opinions about what was best for Division III. I remember reading letters directed to our working group from Division III members, and I started to feel the pressure around Convention time.

At the Convention, the SAAC had to sit on the podium and answer the questions of our Division III delegates. I was nervous. It was humbling sitting in front of all of these people who had strong opinions not only on membership issues but also on the recommendations of our working group. At one point I looked to Kris Hall, the AD at Bard, for support. She gave me the confidence I needed to face the audience. When a question was directed at me regarding the student-athlete input, I answered with confidence and pride.

The whole experience was enriching, and I am proud to say that I hold my own small piece in the history of Division III.

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.

Brian Alas

SAAC Role: Division I vice chair, 2008 (University of Richmond)
Currently: Associate at Boxwood Partners in Richmond, VA

Social networking has become so accepted these days that many have forgotten how controversial it was at its inception. When I joined the national SAAC in 2007, social networking had a negative connotation. Administrators believed social networking was intrusive and, even worse, that it could lead to negative publicity for both their student-athletes and respective institutions.

However, I was convinced that social media platforms represented more of an opportunity than a threat. If employed correctly, they were not only the most efficient way for student-athletes to connect, but they also were the best way for administrators to communicate with student-athletes and fans.
SAAC started by launching a Facebook and YouTube page. After putting together our fan page and opening a Twitter account, we decided to create the NSAAC Blog to centralize our communications.

The next step was educating administrators and spreading the word about our initiatives. That opportunity came during an educational session at the 2008 NCAA Convention. At the beginning of the session, many questions focused on the negative aspects of the medium, but we quickly shed light on its efficiency and effectiveness. I wasn’t positive if everyone understood the benefits of social media at the time, but soon after Convention, we saw participation increase at both the campus and conference levels. A few administrators even reached out to me seeking assistance with their own social media initiatives.

While the national SAAC cannot take full credit for the acceptance of social media in college athletics, I believe that our perspective created a shift to employ social media more advantageously. Our grass-roots effort coupled with our presentation at Convention allowed us to start bridging the gap between student-athletes and administrators.
We hope that social media continues to provide an efficient means of communication in college athletics in the years to come.

“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)