Royston: Student-athlete voices not being heard

Christian Royston

The NCAA West Preliminary is officially over, and with that, the final event of the track and field season is just around the corner. Although Iowa State saw a number of athletes punch their tickets to the NCAA finals, for some, their journeys ended at the preliminary rounds.

Student-athletes work their entire collegiate careers for a chance to make it to the top. With all the work they put into their respective sports, it would make sense to reward the athletes for their efforts.

However, things happen, and it is often out of the athletes’ control. 

One event easily stood out from the rest for all the Iowa State fans watching or following the track and field events over the weekend. The men’s 10K in which Thomas Pollard, a longtime veteran in long-distance running events, saw a disappointing end to his collegiate career.

Thomas Pollard was a shoo-in to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championships coming into the race after a very successful Big 12 Championships. His hopes of making the top-12 were dashed before he knew it, as a collision started when Stanford’s Charles Hicks fell into Thomas Pollard and two other athletes. 

Seven years of hard work and countless hours of dedication led to a result out of his control. All he could do was watch as his hopes of competing for a national title ran further and further away while he was there on his hands and knees. 

Despite his efforts after the pile-up, Thomas Pollard couldn’t make his way back to the lead pack and finished in 15th, just three spots out from qualifying.

This may be the most recent story, but the issue at hand is a lot bigger than one Iowa State athlete missing his shot at a championship appearance. The NCAA has a history of not listening to student-athlete voices and needs.

This tone-deaf attitude by the NCAA has sparked outbursts in the collegiate sports community, and athletic directors like Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard are beginning to voice their concerns about student-athletes needs — If you haven’t seen Jamie Pollard’s Twitter post, it’s worth reading. The ignorance in the NCAA is clear to see.

The main issue this time around is that the situation was avoidable.

Thomas Pollard getting caught up in a pile-up that finished his college career wasn’t anything crazy. Accidents happen, and they are not uncommon in track and field.

This issue is that the NCAA granted a second chance to another athlete in the same competition. A student-athlete competing in the women’s 800 meters stumbled during her race, causing her to miss out on the next round.

After an appeal, she was permitted to race again and qualified for the finals. However, appeals for the athletes caught up in the 10K crash fell on deaf ears. 

I’m not saying the 800-meter athlete didn’t deserve to qualify over the athletes in the 10k race. In fact, that is the success story that should come out appeals to the NCAA.

The issue is that the consistency isn’t quite there in the NCAA’s decisions. They seem to care about the student-athletes sometimes but not all the time.

The rationale for not giving the 10K runners another shot? According to a statement released by Jamie Pollard, the NCAA needed to “protect the integrity of the meet” by making sure that only 12 runners advanced.

The NCAA also has different rulings for advancing runners from first to the second round and third to fourth rounds than they do for advancing them from the second to the third round. This is why they allowed the 800-meter runner to advance smoothly after the appeal and denied the appeals for the 10K runners, even though the 10K event only had two rounds.

In the preliminary round, they pit all 48 athletes against each other on the same track – the most of any event, which is why collisions are common – with only a quarter of those athletes extending their season. 

Although the Iowa State, Arkansas and Air Force coaches all appealed, and the head referee agreed with their appeals, there was nothing the NCAA could do. And if things couldn’t get any worse for the situation, neither of the two NCAA committee representatives watched the 10K race in question. They both made their decisions while blind to the whole situation.

Everything goes back to the NCAA being tone-deaf to the needs of student-athletes and making sure they have voices that are heard. It is obvious change needs to happen.

“We need new leadership at the NCAA that holds people accountable and makes consistent and transparent decisions,” Jamie Pollard said. “The entire system needs to be re-evaluated and streamlined where individuals are held accountable for their decisions.”

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I have all the answers because, frankly, everything involved in changing the system is well above my pay grade. It’s not going to be easy, but it is important work that needs to be done. 

Coaches, athletics department staff and all the support centers around the athletes show genuine care for the student-athletes. At the end of the day, college sports are built around the student-athletes themselves.

Student-athletes have support all around them, but support is hard to find when it comes to the organizations at the top. The NCAA needs to show the same care and attention to the student-athletes.

Athletes like Thomas Pollard shouldn’t have their careers cut short in the way it happened. It’s a tough way to go out.

There must be people concerned about the student-athletes needs, like Jamie Pollard and athletic directors across the nation. The conversation may be long overdue, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about.

“I am the Director of Athletics for 400 student-athletes at Iowa State – not just football and basketball,” Jamie Pollard said. “ All the athletes matter to me – that is why I fight for all of them.”