BURNABY — Unlike all of the traditional varsity teams competing for Simon Fraser University, their schedule is not built around home and road games, or geared towards the goal of competing in conference championships.
Unknown to the vast majority of its own student body, they in fact do their best work while donning the civilian garb of the workaday university student.
In these times of global pandemic, however, it’s no stretch at all to call SFU’s SAAC — an acronym for Student-Athlete Advisory Committee — the most important team in Simon Fraser’s entire athletic department.
While its foundation has always been to create a feeling of community for the student-athletes from all 17 of its varsity sports programs, and in turn have them perform charitable acts of community outreach, it has been the ways in which the SAAC has seized the day amidst these turbulent and unpredictable times which has seemingly re-defined their impact on the Burnaby Mountain campus.
Late last week, Simon Fraser athletics was lauded by the NCAA for finishing among the top fund-raising schools in all of Div. 2 for its charitable work, which despite the restrictions of a COVID-19 world, still raised over $6,000 for the B.C. & Yukon Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Yet despite those kudos, a huge part of their story still sat largely untold: That of a group which has reinvented itself midstream by seeing today’s daunting challenges as the opportunity to affect positive and empowering outcomes.
SFU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee has not only remained involved with community initiatives ranging from ALS and cancer research to volunteering with Special Olympics, it has extended its vision and reach to impact its own campus community in the realms of mental health and social justice.
“Coming into last year, a big focus was changing our culture on SAAC from ‘Hey, it’s great that we’re here to provide ideas, but let’s actually do something actionable,’ and that really resonated with so many of us,” said SFU golfer and fourth-year engineering student Ryan Stolys, an Ontario native now in his second term as SAAC president.
“Athletes, in general, are doers… people who want to get things done, so we got more of them involved with all of the ideas everyone had, and then gave them just that little push. All of a sudden, a committee that had been mainly run by five or six people had about 25.”
AT THE HEART OF WHAT MATTERS
As fall classes began at Simon Fraser in September, the anticipated effects of the pandemic on a university varsity sports program were being played out to full effect.
No games. A cautious return to practice. And in every nook and cranny of each student-athlete’s experience, a baseline of anxiety borne from uncertainty for the future.
Quite incredibly, however, a dovetail moment was taking place on the Burnaby Mountain campus.
As part of a storyline which had been evolving for nearly two years, the group’s efforts under the direction of Stolys and fellow executives Claudia Hart (basketball) and Paul Ursu (football) had finally reached fruition.
In response to what was seemingly a universal voice of need from within its ranks, SAAC members joined forces with athletic department administration, and that co-operative effort led to the hiring this summer of a mental health case worker who is now available to meet the needs of Simon Fraser’s community of 370 student-athletes.
“It was an eye-opening moment for me when they said that it was the goal they wanted to focus on,” relates Kelly Weber, SFU’s Associate Director of Student-Athlete Services who also oversees the SAAC.
“They felt the need that mental health aid for the student-athletes was there,” continued Weber. “It was one of those things where you know it’s there, but you don’t really know until they hit you over the head with it, and that is what they did.
“They came knocking and they said ‘We are not OK. We need to make sure we are as equipped as possible to deal with all the mental health aspects that can come with being a student-athlete,’” added Weber.
Stolys and the rest of SAAC knew their mission was a worthy one, yet in hindsight the process looks to have been powered by a little divine intervention as well, given the importance of mental health recognition since the pandemic set foot in North America in March.
“To their credit, Kelly Weber and (Director of Athletics) Theresa (Hanson) and all of the administration recognized the importance of this, and started to work behind the scenes to make it work in terms of what the approval process would look like,” Stolys said. “It was certainly a long process, but at the start of the (school) year, it was right on time in terms of everything that is happening right now in the world.”
OWNING THEIR FUTURE
Simon Fraser University is hopeful that the school’s new nickname will be chosen by the end of this calendar year.
After three highly-charged days in early July, the university’s student-athletes voted 97 per cent in favour of retiring the school’s founding Clan nickname, one which while carrying more than a half-century of tradition, also bore the brunt of a legacy whose very own student-athletes felt, through their direct experiences, was one they could no longer unconditionally celebrate.
The movement was headed by Simon Fraser graduating senior basketball player Othniel Spence, a past member of SFU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, who had kick-started the grassroots movement a year prior.
Empowered by Spence and the rest of its student-athlete constituency, the SAAC set about its behind-the-scenes work, first polling its membership, then, in its official voice, sharing those findings with the school’s athletic department administration.
While closed-door discussions about the name change were halted by the early stages of the pandemic, they once again took centre stage through Spence’s social media campaign at a time when global social justice issues owned the headlines.
“The Black Lives Matter protests taking place around the world brought the ideas of social injustice to the forefront again and our student-athletes said ‘Hey, this is something we can do to make a difference,’” said Stolys. “It’s about removing the systemic racism that exists and the lack of acknowledging the harm that these names do.”
For her part, Weber was impressed with the way the SAAC initiated the process.
“They took it upon themselves to go to the student-athletes and they came to us with information to support their case,” she said. “They came prepared and that makes a real difference.”
THE POWER OF TEAM
All varsity teams experience the process of passing the torch of culture within their respective ranks, and when all is right, it is what defines the greatness of university sport.
Of course, why should a student-led club with the same kinds of goals surrounding longevity and tradition be any different?
For Stolys, who hopes to graduate by the summer of 2022, the SAAC seems to now be following a similar blueprint.
“When I was elected as president of SAAC back in 2019, one of the things that I recognized right off the bat was that in the past, everything seemed to depend on how much a small group of leaders was willing to do,” Stolys began. “One of the things that has been a priority to change is not to make SAAC so dependent on that smaller group, but to de-centralize ourselves so that one person leaving or one person joining won’t have such a huge impact on our work.”
Simply put, that’s an environment built on self-empowerment.
“Hopefully,” Stolys adds, “by having all of these different cogs turning and working to accomplish different goals, whether they be in social circles, relating to the greater community, or issues dealing with student-athletes from mental health to our name change, that these are things that will just continue to be ongoing.”
Unwittingly, the spin-off has been vast.
There is a reason a university sports community is special, and ultimately it has nothing to do with the win-loss records of its teams.
Ultimately, it’s about an eco-system which only remains renewable through the spirit of its student-athletes, and to that end, it’s hard in any discussion you care to have, to downplay the thoughtful efforts of a group like SFU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
To Weber, it’s hard to put a ceiling on what the SAAC can accomplish, and easy to see just how vital a resource they have become on their campus.
“They are crucial… they are our temperature check,” she explains. “We go to them to find out what our kids are saying, how they are feeling. To us, they are the voice for our student-athletes.”
In these strange and un-navigated times, however anonymous the Simon Fraser SAAC may be outside of their own tight-knit community, they nonetheless are a team whose daily victories can’t be underestimated.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world,” the late cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead so famously and perfectly said. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
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And that’s because it has always been the intent of the message, not the height of the platform from which it is delivered, that ultimately matters.