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Student-Athletes Find Voice in SAAC

Lacy Smith (left) and Holly Sullivan
Sept. 13, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- From across the country they converged on Charlotte, N.C., two representatives from each of the Atlantic Coast Conference's 15 schools, including Holly Sullivan and Lacy Smith from the University of Virginia.

It was late July, and the occasion was the annual summer meetings of the ACC's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Sullivan (track & field) and Smith (softball) won't soon forget the experience, the first time each served as an ACC SAAC representative from UVA.

For parts of three days, the 30 student-athletes shared idea from their respective SAAC prorams and mixed business meetings, leadership development sessions and community service with social activities and meals.

"It was so fun," Smith said.

To encourage interaction between SAAC reps who might not have known each other well before arriving in Charlotte, the ACC assigned each one a roommate from another school.

For Smith, a junior from Lancaster, Pa., it was a women's basketball player from Syracuse. Sullivan, a senior from Chester Springs, Pa., roomed with a women's distance runner from Pitt.

Smith and Sullivan came away from Charlotte with a better understanding of how SAAC is viewed at the ACC's other schools.

"I'd say there's definitely a spectrum, almost, of schools whose SAAC is more up and coming and starting to get more involved," Sullivan said, "and then schools that have a very strong SAAC presence. It was cool to hear all the different sides."

Compared to its counterparts in the ACC, Virginia's SAAC is "kind of in the middle, maybe a little on the higher end," Smith said.

At UVA, some 650 student-athletes compete on 27 varsity teams. SAAC is essentially "a student council for student-athletes," said academic coordinator Dan Jacobs, who oversees the organization at Virginia.

Each team at the University has at least two SAAC representatives, Jacobs said. "From some of our larger teams, there's more, just to give equal representation."

The SAAC reps elected an executive board, which for 2017-18 consists of president Veronica Latsko (women's soccer), vice president for internal affairs Haley Fauntleroy (volleyball), administrative officer Chase Weaverling (track & field/cross country), communications officer Chesdin Harrington (baseball), and Sullivan, the vice president for external affairs.

Each school in the conference has four ACC representatives. Virginia's are Smith, Sullivan, Latsko and Weaverling. Smith and Sullivan were free on the weekend of the ACC SAAC meetings, and so they were chosen to represent UVA in Charlotte.

The feedback received from the ACC's SAAC reps will be shared with the NCAA's Division I SAAC, which consists of one student-athlete from each conference. Virginia Tech volleyball player Jaila Tolbert is the ACC's representative on that committee.

"She was super nice and helpful," Smith said of Tolbert, who spoke to the group about such NCAA issues as time demands legislation, transfer rules, and early recruitment.

On Grounds, SAAC meets once a month to discuss matters related to student-athlete welfare at UVA.

"So if there's an issue or something has come up with a particular team, their rep will voice their concerns at a large council meeting," Jacobs said.

Moreover, he said, SAAC held "a town hall meeting last year where we just invited general student-athletes to come in and talk about their experiences and share concerns," Jacobs said. "I think one of the points of emphasis moving forward is to be more inclusive and to hear more voices. I think what had happened in the past was, you had 50 to 60-some student-athletes who are all leaders and not afraid to share their voices. But that was not always hearing all the voices of every student-athlete."

Starting this academic year, the NCAA has implemented legislation designed to reduce the time demands on student-athletes in their respective sports. Those changes stem from concerns voiced by student-athletes. Head coaches now much create a time management plan with student-athletes at the beginning of the year to decide when days off will be provided. Also, the list of activities that cannot be held on a student-athlete's day off has been expanded.

"Within the NCAA, SAAC is really the student governing body, really the only voice we have," said Sullivan, who's majoring in speech communication disorders in the Curry School of Education.

At UVA, "I feel like it's more of a unifying force," Sullivan said. "We work on community outreach [projects] to bring student-athletes to the community, and we work on internally uniting different teams."

Eric Baumgartner, an associate athletics director at UVA, updates SAAC regularly on compliance issues related to the student-athlete experience, Jacobs said.

When student-athlete concerns arise at UVA, SAAC shares them with athletics department officials. SAAC is hoping for more interaction with senior staff members in 2017-18.

"Already with that we're working on implementing some mental health policies," Sullivan said, "and [the athletics administration has] been very receptive to meeting with us and talking to us.

"We definitely keep a working relationship with them and have a lot of communication back and forth."

In Charlotte, the ACC's SAAC representatives formulated three main goals for 2017-18: to prioritize the mental-health needs of student-athletes; to get feedback from student-athletes on the new time demands legislation; and to "get the SAAC name out to either other athletes or non-athletes at our schools and get the word out about what we are and what we do," said Smith, who carries a double major in economics and media studies.

At UVA, SAAC wants to bring people together, "whether it's making a connection in the community or doing a project with a student organization that isn't made up of just student-athletes," Sullivan said.

"We talked about some projects with the [UVA] children's hospital. And so generally this year we're hoping to obviously keep building on what SAAC means here at UVA and to start some projects that can continue to go on for years."

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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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