Eagles Rising

March 20, 2019

Note: This is the second part of a series on the Emory University Athletics' Fly High program.  The first article focused on program as it relates to the Emory coaches and other atlhetic dpartment staff. This article focuses on the initiative from the student-athlete perspective.

 

By Amy Bryant

Along with coaches discussing ethics and integrity, at Emory University we wanted our student-athletes to do the same. Therefore, Locker Room Talks also occur at the Emory athletic department's Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) meetings. Many student-athletes now point to these discussions as their favorite part of the meetings.

“All of us have enjoyed Locker Room Talks because leaders of our 18 varsity sports have an opportunity to sit together and plan ways to improve our teams’ cultures and the overall experience of being an Emory athlete,” says Anna Fur, who served as President of the SAAC last year. Other SAAC members have said that the talks “create open-mindedness” and allow student-athletes to “see where other people are coming from.”

Our SAAC meetings happen monthly, with 15-20 minutes for Locker Room Talks, led by a different member each time. The discussion leader selects a topic and works with Audrey Hester, Assistant Director of Athletics for Student-Athlete Success and Compliance and one of the SAAC advisors, to develop prompts. Student-athletes are sometimes asked to read an article or case study beforehand about the issue and then think about how it applies to their experience at Emory.

SAAC Locker Room Talks have covered a variety of topics thus far, including mental health, diversity and inclusion, hazing, sportsmanship, esports, interpersonal violence prevention, misogynistic vernacular, social media usage, and transgender teammates. Student-athletes discuss how to best support their peers as well as methods of ethical leadership and decision-making.

One particularly important discussion was about Larry Nassar and his sexual assault of athletes as a team doctor. Everyone was shocked at how far the abuse was able to go, and studying the event helped our student-athletes understand the support available here if they find themselves in a similar situation. 

SAAC members were moved by reading Kevin Love’s article in The Players’ Tribune, “Everyone is Going Through Something,” and discussed ways to better support teammates and encourage each other to access campus resources for mental health. The discussion prompted a baseball player to organize a mental health workshop for his team with Emory’s Counseling and Psychological Services.   

EAGLES RISING

Leadership education for student-athletes is another essential element of the integrity initiative. Our program is called Eagles Rising, which entails a series of workshops specific to class years. Student-athletes are offered tools so they have the capacity to regulate their own behavior when they are away from the watchful eyes of coaches and fans. Sessions focus on teaching student-athletes how to successfully navigate difficult situations, such as holding teammates accountable for their actions. 

In the fall semester, freshmen are given guidance on building connections within the Emory community and transitioning to college, sophomores focus on their individual leadership strengths, juniors work on using their strengths to positively influence and motivate their teammates, and seniors learn how to translate their leadership skills to life after Emory. In the spring, all class years come together for a workshop centered on strategies for communicating across differences.

The common thread that now runs through the workshops is ethical leadership, ensuring all student-athletes have the tools and training to meet any situation they may face with integrity. We work hard to make the learning meaningful to student-athletes’ specific experiences—and we’ve found it important to include free food!

“We want to empower and educate our student-athletes so they have the moral courage to stand up for what’s right on and off the field, in classrooms and social settings,” explains Hester.

REWARDING RESULTS

After two years, the integrity initiative has proven to be successful and worthwhile for both coaches and student-athletes. One of the most visible results is that teams are scrutinizing their traditions and customs to root out denigration and disrespect. Leaders are changing their perspective on the appropriateness of team initiations and many squads have adjusted or abolished established team rituals altogether.

In addition, our athletes are now adept at identifying when something could be construed as hazing, even when the actions seem harmless. For example, freshmen on one of our teams used to wear signs on game day advertising when and where the contest was. It seemed like a positive tradition and the student-athletes said they wanted to do it. But singling out freshmen and requiring them to act differently could be considered a form of hazing. In addition, wearing a sign may make certain individuals feel uncomfortable—it is outside societal norms. Now, student-athletes of all years stop by a sports promotion table to help the marketing staff distribute flyers to promote their events.

My fellow coaches have come to embrace and applaud the program for reminding them of priorities in the midst of daily pressures. Jon Howell, Head Coach of our powerhouse men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, which have captured 12 NCAA championships, sums it up nicely. “We want to guide our student-athletes to represent the university in a positive way in and out of the pool,” he says.

In my own coaching, the discussions have helped me balance the desire to win with the obligation to teach more important lessons in life. Our impact on student-athletes extends much farther than the playing field.  

I also find myself being more sensitive to the needs of my student-athletes. I now continually give myself a litmus test: If I were in her shoes, how would this make me feel? And when talking with other coaches, I try to be that devil’s advocate, especially when I hear something that doesn’t sound quite right or may not meet our integrity standard.

Our athletic director has also found the initiative important for derailing any ethical crisis that might occur. “The integrity program does not make us immune to having a scandal—nothing does,” Vienna says. “But because we are now exchanging ideas about issues, our response is clearer and we can react more quickly.”

Going forward, we hope to expand the initiative so that assistant coaches and more athletic administrators are involved in Locker Room Talks. And we’d like to have every coach lead one discussion a year. We’re also hoping to have more sessions guided by experts in specific areas.

During a time when media reports frequently reveal improprieties in intercollegiate athletics, the Emory Eagles are studying those missteps and working together to proactively prevent them here. Ultimately, the goal of the integrity initiative is to create an environment that commands respect for all, where student-athletes can flourish and shape a positive culture at Emory and beyond.

 

Amy Bryant has been Head Women’s Tennis Coach at Emory University since 2000. Her teams have won six NCAA Division III titles, with 13 appearances in the team championship finals. She was a member of the NCAA Tennis Committee from 2004 to 2007, serving as chair in 2007, and is currently on the Faculty Advisory Committee for Emory’s Integrity Project. She can be reached at: amy.bryant@emory.edu.

 
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