A mission-oriented approach to the NCAA student-athlete dilemma (Part 2)

Northwestern football practice

I began this post yesterday with a look at the current debate between Northwestern University football players, who last week won the right to try to unionize, and schools and the NCAA who claim that student-athletes are primarily students and, therefore, cannot unionize. Aside from concerns about labor and profits, the big issue is that more can be done to create a positive environment for collegiate athletics.

Where can student-athletes, athletic programs and the NCAA meet on the issue? Recognizing the need for student-athlete excellence both on and off the court as critical to collegiate success, here is a mission-oriented approach to the dilemma.

Schools: Begin with your mission. Athletics must support your overall school mission and, in some capacity, student, faculty and staff excellence is embedded in most any mission. This is exactly why, here at the Neumann University Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development we strongly believe that sports can and should be used as a lens to build character, enrich student-athletes’ relationships with themselves and their peers, and build an awareness of the need to go beyond self in service to others. It is core to our athletic program that student-athletes engage in community service, team reflections and leadership programs, and develop new ways to grow athletically, academically, socially and spiritually.

As athletic programs we must offer avenues for student-athletes, many of whom feel over-extended in their athletic demands, to achieve all they are capable of. It means we should not hand out grades, as that strategy is a terrible disservice to students, but consider the support systems available in terms of academic and personal resources. Regularly check in with athletes throughout the season. In short, if there is a need for academic, emotional, or spiritual support, be ready and willing to lend that support.

Moreover, support cannot just be reactive. While a tutoring mentality often includes an unspoken clause of “if the students are struggling, then help them,” athletic programs should proactively offer academic and leadership development initiatives for their student-athletes. Start from day one.

This idea of holistic excellence echoes late NCAA president Myles Brand’s words in his 2005 State of the Association Speech. “When the public begins to believe that the value of the institution is to be measured by the success of its athletic teams, the core mission of the university is threatened,” said Brand. “The value of an athletic program must ultimately rest on its support of and integration into the educational mission and traditions of the university.” For this reason, we must look at a student-athlete not only as a playmaker but as a whole person.

Athletes: No matter your level of competition, you are in a leadership position, and one that calls for excellence. Your athletic ability and inclusion on your team represent an opportunity to play and to receive an education. We can learn from walk-on athletes in Division I programs, very few of whom receive financial incentives to be a part of the team or even see any significant playing time. Yet, they are present for the same hours as their scholarship teammates and are sometimes among the most vocal supporters on their teams. Blessed with gifts, collegiate athletics is an opportunity to further develop and share with others – especially your teammates and your school – and positively impact how you move forward after achieving your degree. This is, in fact, a lesson in teamwork.

This is not to dismiss either the Northwestern football players involved in the union hearings nor the NCAA or athletic conference communities who reject the notion of students as employees. There is work to be done by all, as well as a necessary understanding as to why we use the term “student-athletes” instead of just “students” or “athletes.” We ask our players to be both.

That request is a demand of time, energy, and dedication, but also a demand for excellence both on and off the court or field. We all need to fulfill our responsibility to the mission of our colleges and universities and do our part to ensure excellence.


Featured image (c) Northwestern University Athletics, via Twitter 

About Jeffrey B. Eisenberg, M.A. // Coordinator, New Media, Communications and Events, ISSCD

At Neumann, Jeff works to build the Institute’s communication strategy with a focus on developing valuable resources relevant to student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and all groups the Institute strives to reach. He also serves as a co-chaplain of the Neumann Cross Country and Track & Field teams. Jeff holds a B.A. and M.A. in Strategic Communication from Villanova University.

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