From COVID-19 to social unrest, this year’s events put college athletics front and center. As universities nationwide have worked to bring sports back safely, Texas A&M officials share how they’re working to support student-athletes.
When college athletics shut down in the spring due to COVID-19, Texas A&M University athletes and staff wondered what the future held. For many athletes, their education is inextricably linked to sports participation, and the unknowns were frightening. Then in May, when George Floyd, a former student of The Texas A&M University System, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Aggie athletes and staff were heartbroken, said Texas A&M Director of Athletics Ross Bjork.
In a virtual panel discussion at The Texas Tribune’s Tribfest on Sept. 29, Bjork addressed both crises, joined by Kristen Brown, deputy athletics director and chief diversity officer; Ryan Pittsinger, assistant athletics director and director of Counseling and Sport Psychology Services; and soccer student-athlete Karlina Sample. The discussion was moderated by news anchor Crystal Galney from KBTX-TV in Bryan.
"There's no manual on COVID. There's no manual on social unrest matters," Bjork said as he reflected on the early days of each crisis.
Although the shutdown and the protests had differing causes and consequences, Brown said the approaches taken to mitigate their effects were similar: even-keeled leadership from the top down, and informed, strategic action.
"Our approach has always been to listen and learn, to gather as much information as possible, to be strategic and not necessarily rush to make decisions," she said.
“Although the shutdown and the protests had differing causes and consequences, the approaches to mitigate their effects were similar: even-keeled leadership from the top down, and informed, strategic action.”
— Kristen Brown, deputy athletics director and chief diversity officer
"We started planning very early on, knowing that at some point there were going to be decisions made at a state level, or an NCAA and SEC level or locally from an institutional level, that would allow us to start to return, so we were prepared well in advance of when those decisions were made," Brown said.
Now that sporting events have resumed on campus, Texas A&M Athletics mitigation efforts are in place, including face coverings and social distancing — the entire campus is under mandatory face mask and distancing protocols — as well as regular symptom and temperature checks for athletes.
Of course, athletics wasn't the only program that had to radically adjust procedures due to the pandemic. On March 12, the university announced that classes would move online, and courses began 11 days later. Nearly 14,000 courses became virtual, transferring nearly 57,871 students and 2,988 faculty members to online classrooms — a feat that under normal circumstances would've taken years to accomplish.
Sample, a defender for women's soccer, is a telecommunications media studies major, class of '22, from Frisco, Texas. She shared what it was like when sports shut down and classes moved online.
"It's been a time of adapting and adjusting," she said, pointing to the development of new habits like wearing face coverings.
And it's about thinking of others, she said. "Your teammates, your coaches, your staff, everyone you come in contact with through practice, games, meals, treatment. It's bigger than just yourself."
Sample said online courses required more discipline and new study tactics. "I'm more of an in-person, physical learner. It's been a challenge, but with challenges comes growth," she said.
In the midst of the changes brought on by the pandemic, the summer brought protests against police brutality in cities around the nation and world.
“We have to have empathy … and we can we can try to help … show people that we care through our actions.”
— Ross Bjork, director of athletics
Bjork said the shock, grief and dismay throughout the department were palpable. He sums up his response in a word. "We have to have empathy," he said. "I can't understand everything that goes on for every person, but I can listen, we can have compassion and we can we can try to help… show people that we care through our actions."
Such actions began in early June, when the department created a petition declaring a united front against racism and signed by more than 6,000 campus members. On June 12, student-athletes led a Unity Walk through campus, attended by hundreds of students, faculty and staff. August brought two new initiatives. The Aggie Commitment, co-led by Brown, is designed to provide new opportunities for personal and professional growth and development for student-athletes and staff; to celebrate Black history at Texas A&M; and to be a change agent in the fight against injustice. And B.L.U.E.print (Black Leaders who Undertake Excellence), led by Sample, is designed to provide leadership opportunities for Black Aggie athletes.
Pittsinger, who leads efforts to ensure the wellbeing of Aggie athletes, said making themselves available was key for both the pandemic and social injustice. "We have met with every team on numerous occasions," he said. "We really expanded how we connect with student athletes … to make ourselves more accessible and in different ways that fit current landscape."
Bjork noted that while new strategies and initiatives are critical, it's important to remember that change doesn't come overnight. "It's a marathon, not a sprint," he said. "We're not going to solve it through one initiative or one platform. But continuing to … chip away at each of these things, we'll continue to make progress."
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