Athletes' Pay Wasn't The Only Big Topic At The NCAA Convention. Here's What Else Came Up

(L to R) Georgetown University President John DeGioia, Springfield College President Mary-Beth Cooper, Daemen College President Gary Olson, and NCAA Chief Operating Officer Donald Remy at a panel discussion on pay for college athletes. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

Much of the media attention at the NCAA annual convention that wrapped up in Anaheim over the weekend was focused on new laws that will allow college athletes to earn money from endorsements and other deals starting in 2023. But there were plenty of other issues on the agenda.

Mental health challenges, for one. Curbing campus cultures that turn a blind eye to sexual assault, for another. And the age-old question of how to boost academic success for college athletes.

"We're in the human development business," NCAA President Mark Emmert told thousands of people attending a "State of College Sports" plenary session. "We have to develop them where they are and what they need now. It doesn't matter what they're looking for, we need to equip them for what's next. No matter what that is, that's our job."

In a way, the pay discussion was something of an afterthought — the convention agenda had been largely set long before California enacted its Fair Pay to Play Act last fall, and the NCAA backed away from its initial opposition and agreed to work toward nationwide rules to reflect the California statute. It was a coincidence that this year's convention was held in the Golden State.

Here are some of the other issues that were tackled at the gathering of campus leaders, athletic directors, NCAA officlals and others from the collegiate sports world.

HOW TO HELP STUDENT ATHLETES TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

Some of the most revealing information about mental health came up when NCAA researchers unveiled results from a survey of 22,000 college athletes. The survey took on a wide range of topics but the results related to mental health painted a sobering picture of how student athletes cope.

A large portion of student athletes said they feel overwhelmed by pressures in the classroom and on the field.

Nearly a third of female athletes said that very often or fairly often they felt difficulties pile up so high that they could not overcome them. A lower percentage of males reported feeling this way.

And men and women go to coaches for advice at very different rates. The survey revealed that 62% of male college athletes said they felt comfortable talking to their coaches about mental health issues, compared with 49% of female athletes.

"I had a lot of anxiety growing up and it continued on into college," said Ivy Watts. She was a track star at the University of New Haven about eight years ago. She said there was a locker-room culture that put down mental wellness.

"I did have teammates who talked about people's mental health problems that they're crazy, or lazy, or weak," she said. She wishes her campus had done more to make her aware in her first year of mental health resources on campus.

She attended the NCAA conference because she now travels to college campuses to speak publicly about how she overcame her mental health challenges by seeking help such as therapy.

Watts said her feeling of belonging on campus was strong. But researchers found large gaps when they asked about students' connection to campus life.

Among African American male athletes, 70% agreed or strongly agreed when asked if they felt a sense of belonging to the campus; 81% of white male athletes felt the same way. Among women, 65% of African American female athletes agreed or strongly agreed, while 83% of white women did.

INCREASE PEER SUPPORT TO REDUCE SEXUAL ASSAULT

Two years ago the NCAA required staff and leaders at member schools to go through sexual violence prevention education.

"Sexual violence, sexual harassment prevention efforts have continued to evolve over the last several years within the athletic departments and higher education in general," said Jenny Simon-O'Neill, executive senior associate athletic director at UC Berkeley.

She was one of six people who took part in a panel titled "Campus Strategies and Tools for Sexual Violence Prevention." Last year the NCAA updated a report outlining the role of athletic departments in combating sexual violence on campus.

Her campus has adopted programs that teach coaches ways to talk to athletes — males in particular — about respect, consent and healthy relationships.

"One of the most important voices in a student athlete's life is their coach," Simon-O"Neill said, "so when we're able to deliver this key messaging through their coaches it's often some of the most impactful."

The goal of the program is to tamp down the negative parts of hyper-masculine culture as well as to create a ripple effect in the student athlete's spheres of influence. It's like creating anti-sexual violence influencers, she said.

There's still work to be done, she said, to connect the anti-assault efforts on other parts of campus with those promoted by the NCAA. She believes hers and other campuses are on their way.