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”
“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 may 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.
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!