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Maximizing Student Athlete Outcomes Should Be The Only Priority

By Rick George - University of Colorado

Too often in College Athletics do the pressures surrounding our industry and higher education as a whole create a state of affairs in which administrators are overwhelmed with addressing a seemingly endless stream of issues, forcing us to spend inordinate amounts of our time focused on finding temporary fixes to nuanced problems that require much more intricate solutions. And while some may contend that the distraction of our attention is perhaps warranted given the current circumstances, the on-going crisis has really only exposed our inclinations towards taking a patchwork approach when trying to solve challenges fundamental to why our industry exists in the first place – to maximize the academic and athletic opportunities available to each one of our students athletes.


In professional sports, an organization’s decision-making behavior is driven almost exclusively by how much revenue that result of that decision will produce or consume. On the contrary, in intercollegiate athletics, while programs must maintain financial solvency to function, every decision we make and action we undertake should always intrinsically connect back to whether it furthers the goal of providing a world-class experience for each and every student-athlete on our campus. We have committed ourselves to their long-term well-being, and that means that when it comes to prioritizing what we do on a daily basis, the outcomes of our choices should always create a significant and measurable benefit for the student-athlete.


For the longest time, administrators could simply ask, “How many student-athletes have we graduated?”, and proceed to justify any number higher than the general student-body as a victory. Yet today, for an athletics director to proudly proclaim their program has graduated all of its student-athletes, would be doing themselves a disservice. In this day and age, every student-athlete receiving their diploma is just one non-negotiable component of a larger holistic outcome that must also include a job upon graduation, as well as a guarantee that they will be equipped with the knowledge, skills and habits necessary to prosper in their future endeavors.


If the end goal is to do what is absolute best for the student-athlete in every given situation, then we should strive to optimize our resources accordingly to maximize the positive effect on the WHOLE student-athlete. At the University of Colorado, WHOLE stands for Wellness Health Optimal Life Experience. It means that from the moment a student steps foot in Boulder, they are given every conceivable resource and tool necessary to make the most of their time there. Participating in intercollegiate athletics further opens up unique opportunities for our students, including programming specifically focused on academic success, physical and mental health, as well as professional and career development.


The development of each of these initiatives and programs is unique, primarily because the landscape of higher education has required department’s like ours to evolve tools and resources to meet the changing needs of our student-athletes. We have made it a priority to systematically analyze the larger services our department offers, and identify any gaps therein. This type of analysis always includes whether our program’s positioning within the larger university and local community creates any specific advantages or disadvantages to its execution. This allows us to properly allocate our resources to programs which we have determined will have the largest immediate impact on a student athletes well-being.


Perhaps the best example of this type of prioritization occurred several years ago when a number of recently graduated student-athletes approached me to request assistance with finding work. Initially, I was surprised that a group of accomplished young men and women were struggling to find employment, especially in a renowned business, entrepreneurial and tech hub like Boulder. When my staff and I began to scrutinize what our department had done to link our student-athletes with companies who had offices in the local community, it quickly became evident that while we were surrounded by the likes of Arrow Electronics, Google, IBM and Ball Aerospace, we had largely failed to build meaningful relationships with these firms. Even more troublesome was the fact that they were filled with alumni and supporters of our program, and yet we were obviously not leveraging this network to provide professional development and internship opportunities for our student-athletes.


These revelations led us to focus our fundraising efforts towards establishing a program that would allow us to take full advantage of the resources available right in our own backyard, and eventually led to the creation of  the Scripps Leadership and Career Development Program. At the core of the Scripps  is a multi-prong, mutually reinforcing, approach to ensuring that not only are our student-athletes moving diligently towards the obtainment of their degrees, but also that they will: (1) be armed with a broad assortment of both hard and soft skills to excel in a post-grad environment, (2) equipped with a substantial professional network to leverage in the future, and (3) ultimately have a job in a field of their choice when they decide to enter the workforce.


The first prong, skill development, is largely the focus of Buffs With A Brand, a comprehensive program specifically designed to give student-athletes hands-on, real world experience led by renowned industry experts. Programming includes workshops, webinars, one-on-one meetings and mentor sessions. The program is based on three foundational pillars – brand management, entrepreneurship, financial literacy – and requires completion of the following projects:


  • Brand Management: Student-athletes develop their own personal brand and marketing plan to use in their future career, following industry expert Jeremy Darlow through Darlow’s series called the Darlow Rules.


  • Entrepreneurship: Developed with Erick Mueller, an award-winning professor and faculty director of the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship in CU’s Leeds School of Business, programming centers around “Company Pitch Night” where student athletes formulate a business idea and pitch the key facets of the enterprise to the cohort, instructors, and industry professionals.


  • Financial Literacy: Led by industry experts, student-athletes are led through a series of workshops to understand and practice the basics of financial literacy.


The second prong focuses on building each one of our student-athlete’s networks, with the goal of helping them develop authentic relationships with industry professionals and other individuals who can provide career mentorship and guidance. Core programming includes:


  • Industry Networking Nights: Boulder is a truly one-of-a-kind place, and one of its greatest strengths is the diversity of companies in the area. A tech hub, home to top entrepreneurs, riddled with creative genius, and serving as a gateway to the Rocky Mountains, there are seemingly limitless opportunities for our student-athletes to expand their professional networks. Our events are run in conjunction with campus Career Services, as well as with the different career services programs for each respective academic unit – for example, we host a Pro Sports & Outdoor Industry networking night in partnership with the Leeds School of Business certificate program, Business of Sports.


  • Buffs to Biz Flex-Internships: This program is specifically focused on helping current student-athletes participate in a local flex internship in their field of interest. Flex-internships are generally 20 hours a week for two – three months, and designed to fit around a student-athletes academic and athletic obligations. Currently, several of our student-athletes are interning with local tech company NuAge Experts, while others are interning with Black Lab Sports in their Fly Wheel Project.


By the time our student-athletes near graduation, they should be well equipped with not only a deep rolodex of contacts, but also knowledge and wherewithal to impress employers when they enter the workspace. To ensure that we support each one of our student-athletes as they pursue internships and full-time work, the third-prong of our holistic approach focuses on our partnership with Boulder based InXAthlete. The custom school platform they’ve built at BuffsGoPro.com is a centralized repository where our student-athletes can find and apply for internships and jobs with both local, regional and national firms. They can also stay up-to-date on the latest networking and career related programming, and also have access to resume templates, webinars, and other key resources to develop their professional portfolio.


We recognize that the student-athletes face different challenges with their time demands, and our programming is intentionally and strategically designed to maximize existing campus resources while creating individualized events as needed. All of our student-athletes are also consistently encouraged to participate in the offerings provided by their respective academic units. We deeply value the knowledge of our peers on campus, and utilize their industry knowledge to drive our execution of a holistic and world class experience. We have also partnered with numerous professors on campus to begin analyzing the data around the outcomes of these programs so as to ensure that we can continuously improve upon our efforts.


As leaders in our industry continue to navigate through an ever-changing landscape that seems more uncertain than ever, we must constantly remind ourselves to focus on what is truly important. The temptation will always be there for us to spend our limited time and attention on addressing the short term. But if our industry is to survive and prosper far into the future, we must always remember that every decision we make should be firmly rooted in our mission to better the lives and outcomes of the student-athletes that walk our campuses. To do so requires us to take a systematic, methodical and consistent approach to allocating our resources towards projects and investments that directly lead to an increase in the long-term value propositions that we offer our student-athletes. If we do so, we have a chance to ensure that college athletics continues to make a tremendous positive impact on the lives of millions of young men and women for years to come.