ncaa-d1 flag | January 15, 2015

NCAA Convention keynote places college athletes at the forefront

Kendall Spencer looked back on this high school days on Thursday and saw the potential he had, which needed only a little longer to blossom.

Now a two-time All-American track and field standout in the long jump at the University of New Mexico, athletics provided the opportunity he needed, Spencer said during the Keynote Luncheon at the 2015 NCAA Convention. And now, after his college track career concluded last spring, Spencer can look at himself — as the chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and psychology graduate aspiring for graduate school and, ultimately, a doctorate in neuroscience, he can see how his track career gave his academic and leadership skills a chance to catch up to his athletic abilities.

“When you think about the student-athlete experience, that’s what it is,” Spencer told the gathered crowd, noting that other student-athletes he speaks with tell him similar stories. “Those same student-athletes are leaving with multiple degrees. When you think about a person in high school who wasn’t thinking about college in such a productive manner, this model is doing that. I think we have a distinct ability to contribute to society in a more unique way than any other organization. Isn’t that worth protecting?”

Spencer’s experience was echoed by the SAAC chairs in Divisions II and III: Roberto Baroniel, a senior at Nova Southeastern University who is a pitcher for the baseball team, and Chelsea Shoemaker, a recent graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology who competed in soccer and softball.

They shared their experiences with Oliver Luck, the NCAA’s new executive vice president for regulatory affairs, who moderated the discussion among the three student-athletes.

“I’ve got immense respect for our industry,” Luck said. “I’ve got immense admiration for everyone in this room. I’ve got immense respect for all the coaches who lead our 19,000 different teams in Divisions I, II and III. But most of all I have the utmost admiration for our student-athletes. Their dedication, their hard work, what they put themselves through is really remarkable, and it’s a model for us all.”

All three agreed that they want to see student-athletes increasingly become involved in the governance processes in each division. They also shared the challenges that prepared them for their post-college lives.

Shoemaker spoke of her experience with the Division III SAAC in developing a video supporting lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning inclusion and awareness throughout the division. Shoemaker will speak at the Division III business session on Saturday and introduce the video, titled “You Can Play,” which SAAC hopes will be used by Division III schools as a tool for promoting their message of inclusion.

“I think it’s no secret that one of the themes of this Convention is the student-athlete voice,” Shoemaker said. “One of the things I'm proud of our community for doing this year is taking a little more ownership and writing a proposal, working hard collectively as a team and taking that proposal to the next level. … I'm just very proud of all the work that they’ve done. We’ll be able to really have our voices be heard.”

The student-athlete’s voice will be an important topic during the Division II business session on Saturday, when delegates will vote on whether to give the division’s SAAC voting representation on the Division II Management Council and a vote at its business session. While Baroniel said the Division II SAAC was already proud of established partnerships with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which it helped shape in recent years, and its contributions to a new branding campaign to promote the division, having a voice in the decision-making process would be a valued step.

“As we move forward and discuss in our meetings what we want to accomplish, the student-athlete voice keeps coming up,” Baroniel said. “We’re very fortunate to have our relationship that we do have with our Management Council. But we felt this was one of those phases throughout that process that ties it all together.”

As each SAAC member relayed those experiences, each expressed the importance they felt for protecting those opportunities for future student-athletes and encouraged the crowd to make decisions that continue to create a valuable experience.

“At the end of the day,” Spencer said, “we’re all about the student-athlete.”

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