CORTLAND, N.Y. - After a four-day period in sunny Florida, members of the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) are back in New York feeling inspired, with fresh new ideas to help make a difference for student-athletes within the conference.
Though a trip to Orlando is something many around New York state may dream about this time of year, the SAAC members weren't in the Sunshine State primarily to escape the bone-chilling temperatures. Orlando was where the NCAA Convention took place, providing the committee members an opportunity to represent their conference in front of their peers and other NCAA members from around the country. "My goals going into the convention were to absorb as much as I possibly could from the other conference SAACs, athletic directors, commissioners, coaches, and student-athletes; try to learn about more things we can do for mental health awareness for the SUNYAC; offer advice to others on initiatives they can try for mental health; speak on a national level; and represent my wrestling team, Cortland and the entire SUNYAC conference and SAAC to the best of my ability," SUNYAC SAAC President Matt Norris, a Cortland senior, shared.
There were several events that took place at the 2019 NCAA Convention last week, including an Honors Ceremony, a soccer and bocce ball tournament with Special Olympic Athletes, and a Division III Issues Forum.
The 2019 Honors Ceremony celebrated those with outstanding athletic and academic performances, as well as a select few who have given back to the community in one form or another. Among the award winners were two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Mia Hamm, Seattle Seahawks Linebacker Shaquem Griffen, and former Redsox catcher Jason Veritek. Concluding the ceremony, the SAAC members were given time to meet the honorees and award winners. Vice President of Communications Reilly Workman, a Brockport junior shared his thoughts. "My favorite moment was the annual honors dinner where they honored past student athletes with outstanding awards," Workman said. "Soccer star Mia Hamm, football player Shaquem griffin, and my personal favorite, Jason Varitek received awards that night. As a college baseball catcher, meeting a man who was such an established major league catcher was truly a remarkable moment." SUNYAC SAAC Rep. Kristen Lasker, a New Paltz sophomore, also added her remarks regarding the Honors Celebration. "I have to say a major highlight of this trip was being able to meet the legendary Mia Hamm. As a soccer player, I was raised on the inspiring and empowering success that Hamm left on the soccer fields and shared with her country. So standing next to her in person and being able to tell her that was more than words can even explain."
On Thursday, the NCAA Division III hosted a Special Olympics Unified Sports Activity. SUNYAC SAAC members were given the opportunity to play soccer and bocce ball with the Special Olympic athletes. "I would have to say playing bocce ball with the Special Olympic athletes from Orlando was one of my favorite events. It's not every day we get to play a different sport with such incredible individuals and athletes," said Vice President of Community Engagement Natalie Horton, an Oswego senior. "Not only are we encouraging them, but they are also supporting us and encouraging us to do well in a sport we don't play that often. There is no better feeling than knowing that doing something so simple can bring a big, genuine smile to an individual."
During the DIII Issues Forum, SAAC members were able to share their input regarding their experience with the topic of mental health. "I personally had the chance to get up in front of hundreds of people and speak briefly on mental health, a topic I am very passionate about. At that point I realized that our SAAC E-board was there not only to get this great and fun experience, but because the governing body truly wanted to hear from us so that they can continue to make Division III the best experience possible." shared Cabinet Alternate Connor Lewis, a Cortland junior.
Since September 2018, the SUNYAC SAAC has been implementing strategies across all of the conference member institutions to increase awareness about mental health among student-athletes. In the months since, the SAAC members have learned quite a bit about the issue, and have been implementing various methods across the campuses of SUNYAC institutions to break the stigma that's tied to mental health and student athletics. "We learned a couple of ways to bring about the topic of mental health to our campus, which is a big focus for NCAA DIII and SUNYAC as of last year," Horton said. "I believe that mental health is the big umbrella that leads to domestic violence, drinking and drug abuse, etc. which are all big topics that the NCAA and SUNYAC has focused on."
And though the SUNYAC SAAC has been tackling the mental health stigma with a variety of creative measures, Norris said he and the other members now have a few more tricks up their sleeves to continue their efforts. "I believe we all left the convention having learned many new and exciting things," Norris shared. "We bring back to New York many new ideas we can utilize in our mental health awareness campaign which we are all excited about."
In addition, SUNYAC SAAC members are coming back to New York with a deeper appreciation for the NCAA and its role in student athletics. "There is a new type of pride I feel when I think about being not only a NCAA athlete but a Division III athlete" SUNYAC SAAC Cabinet Alternate Eimile O'Brien said. O'Brien, a junior at Buffalo State, explained "The Division III and everyone involved in its functioning make a difference in all of our athletes lives making us not only better athletes, but more well-rounded and kind human beings. I will be forever grateful for this opportunity."
"Attending the NCAA National Convention is extremely important and inspiring for us," Norris added. "I have been lucky enough to have attended two different conventions and both have left me feeling inspired and ready to make the SUNYAC an even better conference."