Experience at NCAA Convention an eye-opening one for Tolbert

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Currently in pursuit of a degree in international studies with a business concentration, while also learning Chinese, Jaila Tolbert sat down with a professor whom she considers a mentor and discussed future career options.

“CIA,” he suggested, referring to the Central Intelligence Agency, the nation’s largest intelligence agency and one tasked with gathering, processing and analyzing human intelligence for national security reasons.

“I’m like, ‘Really?’” Tolbert said. “That's different. That’s not what I expected.”

Before she jumps into a world of covert operations, Virginia Tech’s standout volleyball player may want to consider a future in college athletics administration. After all, she’s putting together a rather impressive resume for a path toward helping future student-athletes.

The Minneapolis, Minnesota native added her latest resume piece recently, as Tolbert’s participation in Virginia Tech’s SAAC – Student-Athlete Advisory Committee – led to her attending the NCAA Convention in mid-January as the ACC’s SAAC representative to the NCAA Division I SAAC.

Confused? Well, here’s a little clarity.

Virginia Tech’s SAAC is a leadership group consisting of two student-athletes from all varsity sports at Tech. Those on this committee provide input on rules, regulations and policies that affect student-athletes’ lives and serve as a conduit for communication between student-athletes, coaches and administrators. Two student-athletes on the executive team of SAAC also represent the school on the ACC SAAC, which collects student-athlete input on conference issues. Tolbert, a member of Tech’s executive team, was chosen to be a representative on ACC SAAC, along with men’s swimmer Harrison Pierce.

Each Division I conference selects a student-athlete to represent and partner with the NCAA and to vote on legislation regarding student-athlete welfare. The 30-member ACC SAAC chose Tolbert as its representative on Division I SAAC at the NCAA Convention held Jan. 17-20 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Her attendance marked the first time in Virginia Tech history that a student-athlete had been chosen to represent the conference’s SAAC office. She joined former swimmer Brandon Fiala as the only Tech student-athletes ever to attend an NCAA Convention. Fiala served as an ACC student-athlete representative last year.

“The NCAA Convention was an amazing experience,” Tolbert said. “Honestly, I was a little nervous because I knew there were going to be ADs [athletics directors], and Board of Directors and a lot of higher-ups in the NCAA doing a lot of really important work, and I didn’t know how I would fit into that equation, but everyone was so welcoming.

“They had a great schedule planned for us. I went to a lot of different forums, and we talked about a lot of different issues going on right now at the NCAA level. We’re really trying to pinpoint what Division I SAAC wants to work on and our goals for at least the rest of my term.”

The convention ended with several rule changes and modifications taking place, including – perhaps most notably – the granting of additional health benefits to student-athletes for at least two years after a student-athlete leaves his/her institution. A student-athlete’s significant other also receives this benefit.

The Division I Council also changed the college basketball schedule, allowing teams to start three days earlier. In response, the autonomy conferences – those in the Power 5 – passed a proposal calling for a three-day holiday break for basketball players. This goes into effect for the 2018-19 season.

But the topic that dominated conversation was the NCAA’s existing transfer rules. Student-athletes in football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball and ice hockey must sit out a year after transferring to another Division I school before becoming eligible to play. That’s not the case in the other sports, as student-athletes receive the opportunity to transfer and play immediately.

The Division I Council plans to make its transferring proposals in April and potentially take a final vote this summer.

“We [Division I SAAC] felt it was a little bit restrictive,” Tolbert said of the current transfer rules. “Our main question is how can we make the student-athlete’s life a little more similar to a regular student’s life? Regular students can transfer whenever they want, and having that option is really important to us.

“As a committee, we’ve stood on trying to make the transfer environment a little less restrictive and giving a little more leeway to the student-athlete who wants to transfer for good reasons.”

The NCAA seeks uniformity in the rule, and it wants to be fair to the schools, the coaches, and the student-athletes. The question is how, given the competing interests?

Most student-athletes want the ability to be able to transfer to any school of their choosing and be eligible to play right away. The coaches fear that allowing them to do so creates “free agency” in which mass quantities of student-athletes leave every year, thus hindering the coaches’ ability to develop programs.

The Big 12 recently put out a proposal that allows student-athletes to transfer to any school of their choice, but all student-athletes in all sports must sit out a year. The exceptions would be for walk-ons, for those who graduated at the original institution, for those whose original school went on probation that limited postseason competition in the student-athlete’s sport, and for those whose head coach at the original institution resigned or was fired, though the student-athlete could not transfer to the head coach’s future institution.

This proposal certainly gives a lot of latitude to student-athletes, but requiring those who aren’t among the exceptions to sit out a year after transferring may be a deal breaker. The Division I SAAC appears to be leaning toward a different model.

“Personally, I’m leaning toward a model that is maybe sitting out a year, but having a one-time exception rule [for instant eligibility] if you meet certain academic benchmarks,” Tolbert said. “Those are things in the works, things that we’re hoping will come on paper soon, but that’s what I’m leaning toward and what our committee is leaning toward.”

Other topics discussed by Division I SAAC included early recruiting and student-athlete engagement – getting student-athletes more engaged with SAAC, starting with education at the campus level of what SAAC is and knowing that there are opportunities to have one’s voice heard.

The topic of early recruiting isn’t quite as polarizing as that of the transfer situation, but student-athletes want to see it addressed, as college coaches continually recruit younger and younger prospects in an attempt to gain an edge.

“We, as a unit, are hoping early recruiting will be – I don't want to say stopped, but give prospective student-athletes time and resources to make educated decisions,” Tolbert said. “In that, pushing unofficial and official visit dates back a little more and leveling the playing field for everyone. Giving people a chance to make an informed decision. Giving them a chance to know the coach and know the campus before having to feel pressure to make that commitment and sign that letter of intent.”

Tolbert said Division I SAAC plans to make mental health awareness a future point of emphasis. The convention occurred right around the time when Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide, which, of course, put a spotlight on an issue that continues to gain more notice.

Most of that discussion figures to center on the resources provided by the schools. Virginia Tech is out in front, with two sport psychologists – one full time and one part time – on the staff. Both work out of offices in the Merryman Center within easy access for student-athletes.

“We’re so lucky,” Tolbert said. “We’re trying to get schools on the same playing field. There are schools that don’t even have doctors – and we have two. I think we’re really lucky and hopefully we can use our resources to get the message out and make some changes.”

Tolbert’s term on ACC SAAC runs through May of 2019, so she’ll have a voice in discussions and hopefully legislation at least over the course of the next 17 months. Her term ends, coincidentally, around the time in which she graduates from Virginia Tech.

At that time, she’ll be in decision-making mode, choosing between either more education or future career paths. Her education leaves her with possibilities, but her experiences on SAAC, at the NCAA Convention and during an internship with the athletics department’s marketing office certainly give her a foundation for a future in college athletics. Such a future sounds appealing, particularly now.

“It wasn’t my plan, but I’m open to the idea of continuing a career in college athletics,” she said. “It’s all just a part of gaining experience and learning.

“It feels like we, as athletes, are having a conversation with the people who have the power to make change. The student-athlete voice wasn’t represented until now, so being able to be a part of that … I’ve been so humbled and so fortunate.”

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