(This was written as an assignment for my Sports Journalism class)
Billy Walker, the current athletic director at American University, made it clear at a recent press conference that the specific culture at the school influences the experiences of its athletes. Walker was specifically referencing the focus on academics and the lack of school spirit for which American is known.
Positive Focus on Academics Makes American’s Athletics Shine
Walker, in his press conference with a sports journalism class about the state of athletics at the university, praised the evolution of the department over the past three years that he has been in charge and the department’s current image.
The students asked a lot of questions about the role of academics in the athletic experience. Walker, on his own, mentioned it often throughout the press conference, clearly showing how important it is to Walker and how committed he is to keeping it an important role in the athletic community.
The focus on academics is something that everyone has to buy into. For example, Walker said that he would never hire a coach that does not buy into this.
This focus even plays a role in the American’s athletic recruiting process which shows just how much academics influences the experiences of athletic community on every level.
Walker said that he talks with all the students and coaches prior to each school year which ensures that they are all on the same page in terms of academics and that they remain committed to this focus as well as their focus on athletic competition. “I want our student athletes and our coaches to understand that our student athletes are coming here to get a great education,” he said.
He believes that athletics and academics are not usually exclusive. In fact, he said that they are usually complementary. “Having a great athletic experience is part of your overall education here if you’re an athlete.”
Megan O’Keefe, a junior and a member of the women’s soccer team at American, agreed that academics has been a major focus of her experience as an athlete.
“American is not typically a school that fosters a lot of professional athletes, so everyone involved in athletics is aware that it is important to prepare yourself for life after college, when it may not include your sport,” she said.
The focus on the classroom pays off for American’s athletic department year after year.
The recognition that American’s athletes receive for their academic achievements seems to occur each school year in multiple sports. Most recently, volleyball player Monika Smidova won the Patriot League Volleyball Scholar-Athlete of the Year award in Fall 2015.
“That’s the most important recognition that our student-athletes can get. I really take great pride, even though I have nothing to do with it, I take great pride when our athletes are recognized by the league as student-athlete of the year,” Walker said.
For a few of American’s current athletes, recognition for their focus in the classroom has happened multiple times in their college careers. Jesse Reed, a current senior on the men’s basketball team, has won the Patriot League Men’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year for two consecutive seasons while Smidova has won the Patriot League Volleyball Scholar-Athlete of the Year for three straight years.
With all of the accolades, American’s athletes are proving to Walker that they can be top performers both on and off the court.
Lack of School Spirit Hurts American’s Athletic Community
O’Keefe believes that Walker has been a great addition to the athletic community because of his personality and his willingness to take on an active role.
“He genuinely wants to get to know everyone and know all of our names … He is passionate about sports and is very eager to create the best experience for us as student athletes,” she said.
However, this spirit does not seem to translate to the rest of the school.
American is not known to have a lot of school spirit, which fosters a particular culture at the university and ultimately influences the athletic community.
“Sometimes, those of us who are interested in sports are not the right people to ask because it seems like a no-brainer,” Walker said.
O’Keefe agreed, believing that it is all about one’s perspective.
“There are probably a lot of non-athlete students who come here for a specific major and do not even consider the sports at the school, because quite frankly, they aren’t nationally known to be as popular.” She said if she were not an athlete, the lack of school spirit would not concern her as much.
Walker thinks that school spirit has increased in his three years as athletic director, but wants to work on increasing it more.
He discussed how the department struggles compared to other schools with a Division 1 football team, because they have to hook the freshmen when they arrive to campus in August with the soccer and volleyball teams instead. “That’s hard to do,” he said.
He mentioned that the athletes are good about supporting each other. But, Walker believes that the school spirit has a long way to go, especially when it comes to the school spirit from the rest of the student body.
These two elements are not only a major part of the culture at American, but specifically have been a major part of American’s athletic community during Walker’s tenure. As a result, it will be interesting to see how Walker incorporates them into his future plans for the department.