The “Ugly” of Running and the NCAA Business Model

 

NCAA is a business. The athletes are the labor force.  The coaches and athletic administrators are the bosses.

 

Before entering this business I knew nothing about business.  I was 18 years old.  My life was comprised of high school drama and running.  While being recruited I remember asking one of my future coaches about what happens to injured athletes and feeling secure in his answer.  So, I put the idea of getting injured behind me and focused on my excitement of becoming a student-athlete at a division one university.

 

My first year in this business, I was SEC freshman of the year, qualified for NCAA indoor and outdoor championships, and raced in the semi-finals of the IAAF world junior championships. Business was good.

 

My second year in this business, I hung out on the sidelines with a pulled hamstring, twisted ankle, and eventually, a stress fracture.  Near the end of the year our head coach passed away after a 7-year battle with cancer. Business was about to change.

 

My third year in this business, I got a new boss.  As you can imagine with any coaching change, the transition was hard.  Workouts were different and far from anything I was used to.  Unfortunately, I endured a similar fate as the year before.  Needless to say, my new boss was not happy after my injury.

 

I no longer had the secure feeling I had just two years earlier.  I had heard the many horror stories of injured athletes in this business.  There is a tremendous amount of pressure not only to perform but also to stay healthy.  An injury can diminishes the athlete’s value to the team, and cause coaches to question the year-to-year renewal of the athlete’s scholarship.  It doesn’t matter if the athlete is a standout student, volunteers endlessly, is a fierce leader, or has a strong work ethic.  The athlete’s character and ability to perform outside of sport is disregarded.  Yes, once politics and injuries get intertwined in this business, there is that inevitable call from your boss, “Thanks but no thanks.”

 

As I entered my fourth year in this business, I was stunned to learn that my new boss was going to renew my scholarship.  I put the jitters aside, and looked forward to redeeming my senior year.  I signed the scholarship form.  My boss signed the form.  The university administrator (my boss’ boss) signed the form.

Despite this contract, On June 10, 2008 I received that dreadful call from my boss.

 

“I was hired to win track and field. If you were able to stay healthy you could help. But you aren’t”

 

“You have a navicular [stress fracture] problem that won’t go away”

 

“I don’t believe you can stay healthy enough for me to coach you”

 

“You’re un-coachable”

 

“This is a business decision”

 

“Bottom line… I make the decisions who’s on the track. You don’t decide who’s on the team I do”

 

June 10, 2008 continues to be hard day for me to understand.  When did my boss change his mind? When did he stop believing in me? I told him that we already renewed my scholarship and that we signed the contract together.  I pleaded with him to let me finish out my senior year at the same university.  I told him that with careful training I wouldn’t get injured again (even tho I can’t predict the future… I was desperate to stay).  His rebuttal, “You can keep your scholarship but I am the track coach and you are not allowed on my track.”

 

Okay… okay… I can take a hint.  When I think about the conversations that occurred that day, my anger regarding the power dynamic between the coach and athlete grows.  How can a coach toss an athlete aside after a running-related injury? Just like how can a boss toss an employee aside after a work-related injury?  What about workers’ compensation or runners’ compensation?  This is why I like to call this the “ugly” of running and the NCAA business model as a whole.

 

Once my confusion subsided, I became increasingly motivated to train harder and get faster.  Fortunately, this story goes on to find success.  I transferred to a new university. I acquired a new, more supportive boss.  I earned 3 more bids to the NCAA championships, was a 2-time conference champion, was ranked 2nd in the 800m among college women, and went on to run professionally.

 

Here are the major take-a-ways from the “ugly” of running:

  • Although student-athletes receive scholarships, they are not allowed to profit from their student-athlete status, and they are not considered employees of the university, thus by law, no workers’ compensation.
  • NCAA is a risky business.  Universities can pour money, facilities, and coaches into it everyday, but may not get the results they want. Running is a risky business. Runners can pour passion, determination, and will into it everyday, but mat not get the results they want.
  • It is no secret that coaches and athletes alike are under a lot of pressure to perform.  Too much emotion or too little emotion, especially under conditions of pressure, can negatively affect performance.  The secret is finding just the right amount of positive and negative emotion.  Not too much and not too little to perform at the optimum level.
  • Coaches need to take risks (negative emotion) and believe (positive emotion) at the right amounts to get the best performances out of their athletes.
  • Athletes need to have pre-competition anxiety (negative emotion) and confidence (positive emotion) at the right amounts to perform at their best.

 ugly blog

The NCAA business model has succeeded just as much as it has failed.  I have experienced both sides of this model.  Not all parts of the NCAA are broken, but I hope my story encourages others to learn from the broken pieces.  I hope my story inspires others to tell their story, and ultimately, transform the “ugly” of running into the “beauty” of running.

 

Thanks for Reading!

 

7 thoughts on “The “Ugly” of Running and the NCAA Business Model

  1. Skip

    Shanny-had no idea they jerked you around like that! You are one Strong individual! Way to persevere . Onward and upward whatever the challenge. Glad you took the fork in the road.

    Reply
    1. shannon Post author

      I love how you used the word “persevere”. Experiences like this one give people the opportunity to practice perseverance. Now, I get to take what I learned in this experience to my next one. Such a blessing. Hope all it well. And I hope to see you at the Festival of Miles June 5th in St. Louis!

      Reply
  2. Lisa Andrews

    You write very eloquently about what must have been an incredibly painful and difficult time. Thank you for sharing your experience. At the time you wondered “why?”, and like you imply, sometimes wondering “why?” can be the most painful aspect of a situation like the one you experienced. I am glad you experienced subsequent success and were able to resolve the questions in your mind. Time tends to heal wounds, and it may take years to forgive and accept, but its always the best route to peace and happiness.

    Reply
    1. shannon Post author

      Your comment means so much to me. Thank you for taking the time to respond. The emotions that broke my heart that day where the very same emotions that healed it. This is how I was able to share it with you.

      Reply
  3. justin Irving

    Wow, I understand now where you get your drive. You’ve been through a lot in the early stages of your career. But you are right, college athletics is a Business. but the main commodity receives no protection. Something needs to change.

    Reply
  4. Les Kanekuni

    Shannon, enjoying your blog. You never finished the story. What happened your senior year? And what’s your take on the unionization of college athletes?

    Reply
    1. shannon Post author

      Thanks for your comment. For my senior year and 5th year of eligibility I transferred to the University of Missouri. Still a business but one with encouraging coaches and a supportive environment. I was given another chance to get healthy, train hard and run faster. I was able to prove to myself and everyone around me that I am passionate about running and I am not done!

      I have been following the unionization of college athletics and with every push for new legislation there are a lot of hard-to-answer questions. Is a college degree a fair trade for advertising your college through your sport? Will unionization only apply to big money-maker sports (i.e., football and basketball) while the less profitable sports are forced to maintain amateur status?

      There are also a heap of unintended consequences. One that comes to mind related to my blog is if college athletics are unionized then athletes becomes employees of the university. Thus, this opens the door to university employee benefits such as workers’ compensation. I am interested in following Northwestern and soon to be universities in this growing national debate.

      Reply

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