BENSON: Preserve, strengthen the student-athlete experience

One of the opportunities I enjoy as president of Eastern Kentucky University is the front-row seat, figuratively and literally, that comes with cheering for our sports teams and watching our student athletes grow as competitors, as students and as people.

As a former student athlete myself and as a long-time university administrator, I have come to appreciate more and more every day the role that intercollegiate athletics plays in the development of young women and men. In turn, the spirit and pride developed among communities and donors as a result of traditional rivalries and keen competition often serve as a catalyst to attract all-important private support for colleges and universities.

So it was a tremendous honor when my presidential peers elected me earlier this year to represent the Ohio Valley Conference on the NCAA Division I Presidential Forum. I look forward to joining presidents and chancellors from each of the 32 Division I conferences, beginning in September, as we seek to advance the core values of leadership of intercollegiate athletics at the campus, conference and national levels.

Certainly, our athletics programs, our teams and our student athletes deserve every opportunity to represent their universities to the best of their abilities, and to have leadership that works on their behalf.

In addition to their achievements on the fields and courts of competition, EKU student athletes continue to excel in our classrooms. In fact, they combined for a 3.131 GPA this past semester, the second highest of any semester on record. Out of 264 student athletes, 171 earned a 3.0 or a better GPA; 52 Colonels achieved a perfect 4.0 GPA; and three teams posted their highest-ever GPA while another tied its record high.

All this does not happen in spite of the hours they put into practice and competition; I would argue it occurs because of the self-discipline they gain through athletic competition and thanks to the good work of our Bratzke Student-Athlete Academic Success Center.

Yes, some of our student athletes earn a chance to play professionally. A recent example is Nick Mayo, a four-year basketball standout who has signed to play with the Miami Heat's NBA Summer League team. (Another former Colonel, Corey Walden, is playing for the Toronto Raptors' summer team.)

But the vast majority will never get such an opportunity.

That's why earning a degree is the most important feat these student athletes can accomplish during their time as representatives of EKU. Additionally, they develop leadership skills, confidence, good health habits and the ability to work as part of a team, to name just a few collateral benefits.

They also become servant leaders. Recognizing that with their privilege to represent our university comes a responsibility for giving back, our Colonels combined for a school-record 3,835 community service hours during the 2018-19 academic year.

All this explains why so many of our student athletes go on to highly successful careers in a variety of career fields and assume leadership roles in their professions and communities. Many members of our Hall of Distinguished Alumni were student athletes at Eastern.

And it explains why I am so honored to join an NCAA group that aims to preserve and strengthen the student-athlete experience at EKU and all our colleges and universities.

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