Biggest story in college sports? It’s about realigning our support of student-athletes.

October 19, 2023 3:00 am

A group of graduating student-athletes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, during the 2023 Alumni Association Graduation Celebration. (Courtesy of the University of Nebraska at Omaha)

Conference realignment and the hundreds of millions of dollars wrapped up in television contracts and associated consequences have understandably been the story of the summer in college athletics.

I believe there’s a bigger story out there than the college sports arms race, and it puts the focus on the lifelong success of our student-athletes. Responsibility for their holistic wellness and development falls on athletic departments and the universities they represent.  As intercollegiate athletics evolves, my hope is that our industry remains committed to this mission as part of our institutions’ objectives and not solely focused on our financial dashboards.

Thankfully, the NCAA recognized this opportunity to enhance support toward the well-being of our student-athletes by recently announcing elevated requirements called the “holistic student-athlete benefits model” for all Division I institutions that take effect next summer in 2024. These standards require members to demonstrate, among other things, that they provide student-athletes with medical and degree completion support; life skills development; career counseling; support for name, image, and likeness (NIL) opportunities; mental health support; proper nutrition; and strength and conditioning.

Fortunately, the University of Nebraska at Omaha saw this need well before the NCAA moved to make new requirements. Thanks to impactful support from our campus and community, we have proactively taken steps not only to adhere to the new Division I standards but to exceed them. We are committed to supporting the physical, mental and intellectual wellness of our Mavericks in a way that nurtures their success in the classroom, competition and to build future leaders for our community.

UNO recently introduced innovative microcredential programs, which are short-form course offerings that help learners develop in-demand skills and fill critical workforce gaps. UNO saw an opportunity to build a microcredential by working alongside faculty and local businesses to help athletes navigate topics like financial literacy, career preparation, NIL opportunities, Title IX and DEAI training, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and mental health

Beginning this month, participants across all sports are automatically enrolled in this new program, coined Mav360, to further educate them during their time on campus and adequately prepare them professionally. Mav360 checks all the boxes that the NCAA requires for life skills development.

However, our physical and mental health support of Maverick student-athletes goes further. Thanks to external support, we have recently onboarded a nutritionist and sport psychologist. We’ve also partnered with UNO’s Division of Student Life and Wellbeing to embed a mental health therapist to launch a new support operation, giving our players a resource for treatment, screening, training and education surrounding mental health and nutrition.

Through collaboration with UNO’s College of Education, Health & Human Sciences, including our world-renowned Biomechanics and Health & Kinesiology programs, we’ve onboarded three athletic training doctoral candidates to address the shortage in the athletic training industry and to provide practical experience for UNO students. This, in addition to our embedded physical therapy operation and our recently announced comprehensive medical partnership with OrthoNebraska, has elevated the standard of sports medicine care for Maverick student-athletes.

These recent initiatives are building on existing academic efforts that have already paid off for our student-athletes. Across all sports, our Mavericks are earning an average GPA of 3.522 – a figure that has steadily improved since UNO entered Division I – and 94% of our Maverick student-athletes go on to complete their degree at UNO.

UNO’s athletic operation is admittedly modest in scale compared to other Division I athletic departments in our own state and nationally. Despite this, with innovation and collaboration, Omaha Athletics is uniquely positioned to become an industry standard in holistic care through partnerships thanks to the generous support of our philanthropic and business communities and the impactful teaching, learning and research taking place on our campus, so that all students can benefit.

I applaud the NCAA’s move to adopt the holistic student-athlete benefits model and look forward to exploring further opportunities to collaborate with our community. Together, we can put the spotlight back where it belongs: on our student-athletes and their successes in the classroom and in competition, as we prepare them for life, after sports.

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Adrian Dowell
Adrian Dowell

Adrian Dowell was named vice chancellor and director of athletics in November 2021. In his role, Dowell serves on the Chancellor’s Cabinet with oversight of UNO athletics, an NCAA Division I program including 16 varsity sports and spirit squads, and as the chief executive of Baxter Arena.