College sports’ governing body gathered for its annual convention last week, and for the first time in its 109-year history, student-athletes had a seat at the table. One student volunteer leader shared his experience.
Last week was a historic one for college sports. While student-athletes from the University of Oregon and Ohio State University flexed their muscles in the first-ever College Football Playoff, dozens of their peers from other schools around the country were gathered just outside Washington, DC, to flex their vocal cords at the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association Convention.
For the first time since the NCAA was formed in 1906, student-athletes voted alongside university presidents, athletic directors, and other school officials on matters that directly affect them. Their seats at the table—one on the NCAA’s 24-member Division I Board of Directors, two on the 40-member Council, and 15 on the 80-member “Autonomous Five” panel—came courtesy of a new governance structure that was unveiled last summer and approved in the fall.
Students are also serving on student-athlete advisory committees (SAACs) organized by school, athletic conference, and NCAA division (I, II, or III). These committees help the students organize their efforts and provide a platform to discuss legislative proposals at each level.
“Even though we have a small percentage of the vote, it’s sort of symbolic in a way,” said Kendall Spencer, chair of the Division I SAAC and a former track and field student-athlete at the University of New Mexico. “It’s nice to be able to have that feedback in your pocket and then go into meetings and say, ‘OK, here’s what your student-athletes think about this proposal.’ I think that’s extremely special. It shows that the NCAA and the membership value our opinion and value our drive to have a tangible impact in our own endeavors.”
Their opinions were heard and counted during discussions about new concussion policies, expanding scholarships to cover full cost of attendance, and protecting scholarships from reduction based on athletic performance, among other issues.
Spencer said the goal for the NCAA’s new student leaders is to protect the student-athlete experience.
“We have so many different people coming from diverse backgrounds, a lot of whom weren’t even thinking about college until they realized that their athletic ability could afford them the opportunity to reach that next level,” he said. “And the magical thing about it is that they’re leaving with multiple degrees, they’re leaving with aspirations to go to graduate school. That’s the model we want to protect—that’s the student-athlete experience.”
And now that their first official NCAA Convention is behind them, student-athletes have a clearer picture of what they hope their future holds.
“One thing we’re all hoping happens is that our weighted percentage of the vote changes a little bit. Seeing 460,000 student-athletes narrowed down to 2 percent is hard to swallow, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Spencer. “Beyond that, SAAC needs to keep growing, and our notoriety needs to keep growing. Right now, a lot of people don’t realize that not only do we have a voice, we have a strong voice that happens to now be at the table.”