The gridiron and the sandlot
On my first Halloween, my mom dressed me up as a cheerleader.
She had no idea how wrong her idea would be.
Soon enough, I very thankfully learned how to form words and thoughts, and when I was in kindergarten, I went trick-or-treating as Derek Jeter.
I was, without a doubt, bound to be Daddy’s Little Girl when I vehemently agreed to chase down fly balls in the weedy grass at Brice Park after my dad tossed pitches to my brothers on sunny weekend days. We would put a soft-toss net in our front yard and practice fly balls on the grass while my mom cooked dinner. We had a street hockey net placed directly in front of our wooden garage door that, in hindsight, was probably the reason we needed it replaced with a metal one. Most of my childhood memories come with a dress code of Umbro shorts, oversized t-shirts with local pizzerias and dentists as our team sponsors and a multitude of hand-me-down baseball pants, all with an inextricable orangey tint from the dirt when we slid smiling into second base.
Not much has changed for me in my entrance to womanhood—I still frequent my gym clothes (read: I wear them everyday) and sports are a massive, massive part of my life. With so much of my childhood spent hopping from practice to practice, learning how to throw, how to swing a golf club and what on-base percentages meant, sports have been a part of my transition through high school and college, and I am thankful for that.
For girls like me, sports have fallen gracefully and graciously in our laps as a means of fitting into our familial heritage. I am thankful and, more importantly, very lucky, to have been awarded the privilege of competing in sports through college. The ritual bi-weekly homerun derby held on our appropriately diamond-shaped front lawn fueled my competitive nature and ensured that I would be getting clothes grass-stained and busting knees into my twenties and playing Division I field hockey.
Through the rec leagues, travel tournaments, high school state titles and an eventual Division I National Championship appearance, I don’t think of these things as isolated events. They are all part of a culture of continuous competition, a passion for rivalry and victory and valor in the form of a game—games that might not matter to anyone but the 11 people on the field or the five people on the court or the one hitter in the batter’s box.
College athletes are different in that, to us, these games are our lives. They got us where we are—because leveraging athletic performance to further education is allowable and acceptable and is worth just as much on a transcript as other extra-curricular activities or experiences.
For most of us, as told so eloquently by the NCAA, we’re a bunch of student-athletes that are going to go pro in something other than sports. For many of us, it’s not about money or anything beyond the team result at the end of a rigorous, emotional season or career as a Division I athlete.
For most athletes, we think of college sports as college sports. Not revenue vs. non-revenue. They’re sports. Just sports—the games we played growing up and spent hours in our backyards doing while our dads or moms supervised and checked our form. It’s about the time we spent taking shots on goal in our driveway or taking a hundred swings a night in the garage at 10 p.m. It’s the practice-makes-perfect mentality that kept us swinging and hitting and scoring and succeeding into our college careers. These games are important to us—and whether or not our sport makes money for our school, these games brought us our identities and have given us opportunities, both concrete and intangible, that have built our identity and character as young professionals.
The case of the Northwestern football players is a poignant one. It is a discussion that has now become not just a suggested conversation, but a necessity, for the future of both revenue-generating and non-revenue sports at the collegiate level. Athletes in the revenue sports—basketball and football—are undoubtedly part of the money machine. The conversation at this point about compensation for student-athletes is an inevitable one, but it is one that will take an unbelievable amount of finessing and care to complete.
The NCAA without a doubt needs to engage in a conversation and negotiation with its student-athletes—a task it has generally stayed away from in the past, particularly where dollar signs are involved. Right now, the debate is almost too big to tackle as one single entity. It is a daunting conversation, and must consider the standing of and impact on non-revenue sports that paying or not paying athletes will have. I don’t know the right answer, and I don’t know if there is one. But the pink elephant in the NCAA office is out and flailing its arms in waiting.
Most of us aren’t going pro. We’re just kids that have been catching pop-ups and weaving soccer balls through cones in our backyards since we learned to walk. We understand the kids who want to get paid—but cannot imagine the shockwaves of impact that could occur if the money given to our teams was stripped because of our status as non-revenue programs.
We need to keep an eye out for the little guys. The tennis teams. The track and field programs. Field hockey, lacrosse—even baseball. Because while we might not fill the stands with dollar signs, these games are part of our identity—and the identity of athletic departments nationwide.
Sports are about passion and guts and valor. But for most of us competing at the amateur level, passion doesn’t pay. It won’t pay—and that’s fine. But it should never, ever go away.
Ashley Camano is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. Send Ashley a message on Twitter @smashleycamando.