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Program helps future sports leaders identify strengths, opportunities

300 student-athletes participate in virtual Career in Sports Forum

“Rip off the label. Know and live your ‘why.’ Don’t go with the flow; be the flow.”

Jada Burke, an athletic training major on the women’s ice hockey team at Lindenwood, learned these lessons and more May 26-28 from her engagement at the 2021 Career in Sports Forum.

“Having the opportunity to attend the Career in Sports Forum came at an important juncture in my life,” Burke said. “It opened my eyes to the great possibilities that a career in sports can bring. I now understand my values, passions and strengths and how I can use them professionally after my athletic career.”

Burke was one of 300 student-athletes selected to attend the forum, engaging in three days of programming designed for current student-athletes to explore future careers within the athletics industry. Open to juniors, seniors and graduate students who had athletic eligibility during the 2020-21 academic year, program participants walked away with a refined understanding of their strengths and potential opportunities in sports where they may apply those talents.

“We have been challenged to learn about ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses and have been equipped with numerous tools to better prepare us in navigating our future careers,” said Chris Paul, a computer information systems major who plays football at Tulsa.

Throughout the course of the forum, participants heard from athletics leaders on a range of topics, including finding identity outside sports, understanding workplace values and culture, networking and building a professional brand. Speakers included Yolett McPhee-McCuin, women’s basketball head coach at Ole Miss; Jonathan Orr, executive director of Athlete Transition Services; Erika Swilley, vice president of community and social responsibility for the Detroit Pistons; and Derrick Gragg, senior vice president of inclusion, education and community engagement at the NCAA and incoming athletics director at Northwestern.

“The NCAA Career in Sports Forum presented me the opportunity to listen to a variety of speakers from different industries around college and professional athletics,” said Wesley Parker, a physical education major on Averett’s football team. “Over the course of the forum, I both improved some of my strengths, while at the same time discovering many new strengths I did not know I possessed. Learning and improving these strengths will have an everlasting impact on my future career.”

To foster relationships with attending student-athletes, participants were grouped into “color teams” of 20, where they engaged with a trained facilitator. In this more intimate setting, student-athletes completed and reviewed an in-depth personal strength assessment, gained insight from young professionals about the career search in athletics and built peer connections that could last a lifetime.  

“Building community among our attending student-athletes was one of our top priorities, as these participants will continue to serve as sounding boards, support systems and even colleagues for one another throughout their careers in athletics,” said Sable Lee, assistant director of NCAA leadership development.

The event took place on an engaging virtual platform, which held dozens of resources for continuing education opportunities for participants after the forum. Speakers and guests encouraged dialogue and interactivity, replicating the feel of in-person programming while granting access to an expanded participant base.

Inspired by the words of the forum’s speakers, P’Hariz Watkins, a member of Adrian’s basketball team who is pursuing a master’s in sports management, summed up his takeaways from the experience in a profound sentiment: “I’ve learned that embracing your process truly opens the gates to who you can be. You are the only one who can travel the path that is presented before you. Once you find ways to truly love yourself, embrace who you are and find your true happiness, then the outcomes for you are endless.”

The 2021 Career in Sports Forum attendees are poised to become leaders across athletics and inspire transformational change in the industry. As McPhee-McCuin emphasized in her session, “Leaders must be learners.” The 300 student-athletes who logged on each day of the program proved they all fit that description.