Coaches and administrators have long touted the ability of sports participation to open up doors for student-athletes outside the athletic realm. To further that message, Illinois Central College (ICC) hosted a panel discussion this past winter where campus and local community members who were college student-athletes shared how sports helped shape them personally and professionally.
Called "Emerging Through Sports," the event was organized and sponsored by the ICC Diversity Department and Minority Retention Committee and was part of a larger annual African-American History Month program. Tony Wysinger, the school's Assistant Athletics Director and Head Men's Basketball Coach, was its moderator.
"When I was playing, a coach told me, 'Don't let sports use you, use sports to get where you want to go in the world,'" Wysinger says. "A lot of kids only think about that in the context of going on to play professionally. There are a number of local community members who played sports and have gone on to successful careers outside of athletics. We wanted to highlight their stories to open kids' eyes up to other options."
The discussion took place on the school's main campus and was attended by close to 90 people, a mixture of ICC students and faculty, local high school and middle school student-athletes, and community members. A.J. Guyton, who was a four-year starter on the Indiana University men's basketball team, briefly played in the NBA, and currently is a Retention Coordinator at ICC, served as host.
There were three panelists. Ericson Beck played college basketball at the University of South Alabama for two years and became an advisor in ICC's Diversity Retention & Transition department in December 2012. Jonelle McCloud is a former women's basketball student-athlete at the University of Illinois who later played overseas, earned a master's degree, and was an assistant women's basketball coach at Florida State University before becoming the manager of Proctor Recreation Center in Peoria, Ill. Tiffany Mack is an assistant coach on the ICC cross country team who ran track and field and cross country at Bradley University.
Wysinger recalls that Beck's remarks resonated especially well. "I was in a back-and-forth with Ericson about how sports helped him achieve success, and he mentioned that basketball taught him to focus on the negatives of his game, because that enabled him to think about mistakes he wanted to avoid repeating," Wysinger says. "That's completely opposite to the message a lot of kids get, which is to focus on what they do well. I think people appreciated hearing a different perspective."
McCloud's story was also well-received. "Hearing Jonelle speak about the time she spent playing in Italy, Germany, and France surprised a lot of kids," Wysinger says. "Most of them never think that globally, and she showed them that opportunities exist outside the U.S. But she was also able to connect the things she learned in sports, such as work ethic and team attitude, to skills she utilizes in her current career."
The event also provided a quick history lesson. Before the panel discussion, the audience watched a video clip of the 1966 Texas Western College men's basketball team, which was the first squad in NCAA history to have an all-African American starting lineup. "We wanted to bridge a gap for kids who don't have an understanding of the historical impact sports can have," Wysinger says.
The school publicized Emerging Through Sports through an e-mail blast to more than 400 community members, as well as through posters placed around the ICC campus. Kyle Bright, an Admissions Representative at ICC, helped organize the panel and says the feedback was very positive. "The people I spoke with afterwards were pleased and said they learned a lot," he says.
The key to making the event successful, according to Wysinger, was to find speakers who could relate personal stories, rather than read generic concepts from notecards. "You want people who can talk from the heart," he says. "That's how you keep the audience invested and engaged, especially younger kids. They will tune out speakers who tell them the same things they've heard before.
"We had a question and answer session, and we told the kids beforehand that we expected three questions from the audience," Wysinger continues. "That also helped them be more engaged."