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Raising Their Voices – and Votes

The college athletes taking seats for the first time at the highest levels of Division I governance are making their opinions heard

Anthony Lyons, a baseball player studying biology at Texas Tech, was among the Division I college athletes who now vote within the governance system of the autonomy conferences. TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY PHOTO

As the 2015 NCAA Convention came to a close, consensus on one point was clear: Students will take full advantage of their new opportunities to participate in governing Division I.

Since summer 2014, Division I college athletes knew they would become an integral piece of NCAA governance moving forward. In July, presidents on the subcommittee redesigning Division I unveiled a structure that provided students a vote on the major decision-making bodies: the Council and Board of Directors. The redesign also created a system that gave the 65 schools in the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences the autonomy to make some rules for themselves. That move commonly has been referred to as an autonomy system. Within that system, three students from each of those five conferences got votes.

Throughout the division, students have a say in rules that impact their daily lives and their futures. The unprecedented step forward happened after members of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee stood up during a session at the 2014 NCAA Convention geared toward reforming how the division works and asked: Where is the student representation?

The presidents heard the question and responded. And this year, the students fulfilled their end of the bargain, participating fully at every opportunity, both on the governance bodies and within the autonomy business session.

The most visible showing of student participation occurred in the autonomy session at the Convention. Students dominated the conversation on nearly every proposal, even disagreeing with each other on the merits of legislation prohibiting schools from pulling scholarship aid for athletics reasons (such as injury or performance).

Students also took center stage in the debate over a concussion proposal. Some students said any movement on the issue was positive, while others asserted the incremental step of creating a monitoring group to review campus policies didn’t go far enough to protect athletes.

Nandi Mehta, who plays soccer and is majoring in economics and international studies at Northwestern University, argued that allowing an athlete’s scholarship to be pulled for poor performance on the field moves college sports a step closer to professional sports and makes a scholarship akin to a salary. Mehta said the experience she had voting alongside athletics administrators and university presidents was invaluable.

“I’m really proud that student-athletes made a difference,” she said. “People came up to me and said they appreciated what I said.”

The students who voted at the Board and Council meetings didn’t have national media hanging on their every word but did influence the conversation to benefit students in the Division I structure. Dustin Page, a soccer player studying finance at Northern Illinois University, and Devon Tabata, a soccer player who majored in finance at Duquesne University, cast the student votes on the Council.

At the Council’s February meeting, the group designed the substructure that will concentrate on different topic areas within Division I and devise legislative proposals to be voted on by the full Council. Page and Tabata made sure students were included on each of the new groups created by the Council (and later approved by the board). A representative from the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee will have a seat – and a vote – on each of the seven groups reporting up through the Council, a vital piece for athletes that can be attributed directly to feedback from Page and Tabata.

“In anticipation of the issues that were presented at the first Council meetings, the Division I
national (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) had group discussions to prepare,” Page said. “We wanted to put student-athletes in a position to be heard at every level of the process.”

Patrick Andrews, Clemson University

Students voting on rule changes within the autonomy group also did their homework. Patrick Andrews, a baseball player studying mechanical engineering at Clemson University, said he and his fellow representatives from the Atlantic Coast Conference did significant work touching base with students at their schools and other schools within the conference.

“Only (students at) three schools have direct representation, so we made it a point to talk with other student-athletes and see how they felt about it on other campuses,” Andrews said.

That kind of outreach will only grow as students become more integrated into governance, Mehta said. While talking with the Big Ten office was great preparation for what to expect, she said, the best work she did before the Convention was talking to other students about the issues.

“It doesn’t matter how your coaches feel about it, how the athletic trainers feel. It doesn’t matter how the administrators feel about it,” Mehta said. “All that matters is what those student-athletes feel. That’s your job: Represent them.”

Even after the Convention, the students continued their commitment to spreading the word to and getting feedback from their peers.

Tabata, who represented her peers on the Council with Page, said she’s shared her experience “probably more times than anyone wants to hear.”

Maddie Stein, University of Kansas

Maddie Stein, a softball player who will graduate this spring from the University of Kansas with a degree in sport management, said she underestimated the interest level of her fellow athletes when she returned to campus from casting votes in the autonomy session at Convention.

“I didn’t think anyone else realized the monumental effect student-athletes voting could have,” Stein said. “But I’ve had a lot of student-athletes reach out to me.”

Anthony Lyons, a baseball player studying biology at Texas Tech University, said he’s never met a college athlete who has read the entire rulebook, but if he can play a small part in explaining to his teammates or other students at Texas Tech what the rules mean, the process will be successful.

The students participating in the process all had similar feelings about their selection and service. Lyons summed it up: “It’s an honor to be able to give back.”

Many of the students will continue to serve as representatives of their peers, and some hope to be involved even more than the first time around. Both Stein and Mehta look forward to working with their conferences to draft proposals for consideration at the 2016 NCAA Convention.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.