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Student-athlete voices valued in decisions for fall

Mental health, physical readiness concerns shared with campus and conference committees

Wright State volleyball’s Lainey Stephenson realized the value of her voice when it shifted opinions on a March phone call with Horizon League athletics directors, senior woman administrators and faculty athletics representatives.

The question, at the time, for the Horizon League Council: How should it word an updated statement regarding the league’s remaining competition as it related to the COVID-19 pandemic? Specifically, should “canceled” or “indefinitely suspended” be used?

Stephenson, the student-athlete representative on the Horizon League Council, spoke up before the group voted on the distinction. She said using “indefinitely suspended” could have provided false hope to her peers that their seasons might resume, when the odds were slim that would happen. 

The group chose “canceled.”

“That swung a lot of people’s votes. Coming from a student-athlete, that made some people change their minds,” said Stephenson, also a member of the Horizon League Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “I think they value my voice and my opinion just as much as if I was another AD. I think that’s really powerful and really awesome, just to know that I do have that much input on such an important decision.”

Stephenson’s experience on the Horizon League Council represents the best type of collaborative decision-making in college athletics, one in which student-athlete voices are not only sought out but also seriously considered.

Julia Murphy, Jordan Schmid and Felipe Hidalgo can relate. They also serve as student-athlete representatives on school or conference committees that were specifically formed to address how to safely return to campus and competition in the fall. They, too, have felt valued in their roles.

Murphy, a pitcher for Providence softball, has served on the school’s athletics/rec sports subcommittee of its larger Continuity Task Force. The role of the task force is to develop plans for a safe return to campus in the fall, considering all aspects of campus life. Murphy said her time on the subcommittee has mirrored similar opportunities she’s had at Providence.

“Since I’ve been a freshman here and getting involved in SAAC, I’ve had the opportunity to sit at a bunch of various tables, so to speak, where senior staff members are making a lot of important decisions,” said Murphy, president of Providence’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and a member of the Big East SAAC. “When you’re a student and you go into these rooms or these board meetings, you’re intimidated because you’re the youngest person in the room, by far, but from my first instance with that — and this task force has been no different — I’m just always blown away by how much the student voice isn’t just heard, but it’s prioritized.”

Often, Murphy said, these committee meetings begin with the chair turning to her first.

“Julia, what are you thinking?” she referenced as a common opening to meetings. It’s reassuring that not only does she belong in the room, but the other administrators want her there. 

“I’m the only person who has the experience and the perspective on a lot of these issues that they’re trying to understand, and they’re using me as a resource,” Murphy said. “All of my peers that are sitting on other committees, they’ve been really leaned upon heavily as decisions are being made, and that’s reassuring for all of us as students, knowing that when we go back and when certain changes are being made and implemented, we will have had a pretty large say and contribution to that.”

Schmid holds similar sentiments from his time on SAAC and, more recently, as a student-athlete representative on Marquette’s COVID-19 Response Team. He got brought on to the response team at the request of Marquette Athletics Director Bill Scholl. As the president of both the Marquette and Big East SAACs, Schmid has sat on plenty of committees. So he has not been surprised at this point by how much weight his perspective carries.

“Administration, coaches and everyone are very receptive to our voice because, at the end of the day, they’re trying to serve us and create the best experience for us as possible,” Schmid said.

Everyone, as Schmid put it, includes those at the conference office. Stephenson and Hidalgo are just two such examples within the Horizon League.

“Part of our core belief is that we want our student-athletes to have a voice," Horizon League commissioner Jonathan B. LeCrone said. "We have students throughout our governance structure that have a voice and vote, including on our Horizon League Council, which is our administrative decision-making body, and we have engaged our students on return to safe play and on racial injustice issues. We are in the business of providing them with a value-added educational experience, so we certainly need and want their perspectives.”

Specifically, Hidalgo, was asked to bring a student-athlete perspective to the Horizon League’s Return to Play Working Group. He quickly understood what Schmid has long known.

“They told me, and I felt it, that they value my opinion very highly and they’re all ears because everything they do is for us, our safety and our health,” said Hidalgo, a men’s tennis player for Northern Kentucky and member of the Horizon League SAAC. “To have the power to sit in a Zoom call with so many people who lead their department in such high positions and making such decisions, it’s very empowering. I feel like the opportunity is incredible.”

The specific feedback these four student-athletes have provided their respective groups was fairly aligned. Chief among the student-athlete concerns they shared are mental health and well-being, which matches up with results from a spring NCAA survey of more than 37,000 student-athletes.

The pain of having spring seasons end so abruptly is still present. Anxieties surrounding the unknown of what the fall will look like only continue to grow. How will daily routines be impacted by restrictions? Will small, yet important, impromptu gatherings like eating in the cafeteria or gathering for a team movie night in the dorms still be possible?

“What is the dynamic going to be in terms of how we interact with people in the ways we’re so accustomed to? Because it seems there’s going to be a lot of changes, and that was on the forefront of a lot of student-athletes’ minds who I talked to,” Murphy said. “I really wanted to make sure Providence is considering the different kind of tolls that this has taken on different athletes and how we can kind of prepare for that, making sure that we implement the resources and the support that might be needed by the time we return to campus so everyone is given what they need to get back on track.”

Another theme Schmid heard in his outreach to his peers is some, especially those who compete in the fall, feel less physically prepared because of a lack of access to their normal workout opportunities. This includes gyms being closed, campuses being shut down and teammates not being nearby during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s hard, from an emotional standpoint, to get up and not be with your team every day and not be with your friends and still train at a really high level like we do on campus,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest concern I hear: ‘Physically, I don’t know if my body is ready to play a full season in like two months.’”

Schmid voiced these concerns, and action was taken. He said Marquette’s strength and conditioning staff will approach this fall much differently than in the past.

“Things are going to be a little bit lighter. We’re gradually going to build up.,” Schmid said. “Obviously, student-athlete well-being and safety are at the forefront of everything that’s going on.”

Part of finding those solutions starts with the student-athletes. Murphy said it’s a two-way street. Administrators need to involve student-athletes in the decision-making process, but student-athletes also need to be passionate about those opportunities when they come.

“If they’re asking for an opinion from a student-athlete, I think we should be excited to share that,” she said, “because sometimes we don’t realize the impact that our voice can have, so it’s important to share it if we’re given the chance.”

Hidalgo agreed.

“We really have a lot of control and a lot of room for change and improvement, and it’s really in our hands,” he said. “It’s very empowering.”