People often shove University of Chicago athletic teams exclusively under the category of school sports. That characterization fails to give credit to the wide variety of things that the athletic department, coaches, and student-athletes do within our community. Within academic and student life, coaches push their players to excel in the classroom because they, like the rest of the school, advocate our general educational goals.
Yet Maroon teams should also be noted for another significant characteristic that they foster: service within the broader community of Hyde Park and Chicago.
Each sports team participates in some sort of community service effort each year. While individual programs are allowed the freedom to choose the events, the athletic department, as a whole, proactively solicits opportunities.
"[Athletic Director] Tom Weingartner and the administrative staff are very helpful and persuasive in saying Hey, let's use our athletes and see how we can help out in the community,'" head football coach Dick Maloney said. "I really think, as coaches, we have an ability to help direct and put ideas into place that a student's professor, for example, may not be able to do. As a department, we're always looking to different avenues our students can explore."
One of the ways that coaches receive ideas for service is through faculty meetings. At a meeting earlier this month, students from various community service groups spoke to the athletic department about what could be done in our community. The representatives of these groups praised efforts of individual student-athletes that already work with them, and they pitched ideas for activities that could be done by a team.
Community service efforts range from helping with sports clinics to feeding the hungry and tutoring. The women's basketball team this year put on a basketball clinic for underprivileged boys and girls in support of the Girls in the Game organization. They conducted shooting and dribbling drills before spending time talking with the kids about their educational and life goals.
"The kids can see what we do as a team, where you have to put aside your individual goals to focus on one thing that the team is trying to accomplish. I think that comes across to kids when you're making a concerted effort as a group to give back to the community," head basketball coach Jennifer Kroll said. "It's not only what you want to teach the kids, but also talk to them about, experiences you want to share with them."
While coaches highly value how their student-athletes help in the community, they similarly stress the importance of how Maroons can learn from difficulties that they may not have experienced in the past. The latter goal has certainly been accomplished, as players still reflect on what they have learned from service.
"I think we all got a lot out of working with those little kids. After we were done, we talked about how fortunate we were with all the opportunities we had," first-year point guard and UAA Rookie of the Year Korry Schwanz said. "The kids were extremely energized and seemed to have a lot of fun. Considering we still talk and laugh about that day, I'd say our team had a lot of fun too."
The team's efforts were so appreciated that they were asked back for the next week.
The men's football team also helped with a youth sports clinic last fall, canceling practice to send everybody to Washington Park for the Chicago Park District's Punt, Pass, and Kick Southside Competition. All of the players wore their uniform shirts while they helped run drills, signed programs, and talked with awed kids. The weekend before Thanksgiving, the football team helped the Chris Zorich Foundation deliver food baskets to needy families.
As it is for any other student of the College, finding time to participate in the community can be difficult even if one would like to help. By organizing events as a team, coaches try to help student-athletes find the time.
"Once we open that avenue and talk about community issues a little bit, we get more kids working with neighborhood school programs. It may well go on their agenda," Maloney said.
Student-athletes also use other mechanisms to organize efforts in Chicago. The Order of the C and the Women's Athletic Association (WAA), the oldest men's and women's student-athlete organizations in the country, use their connections with player representatives and the community to put on events each year.
WAA's yearly fundraiser is the WAA Shootout held the night of a University basketball game. All money received from raffle ticket sales is donated to a specific cause. In past years, proceeds were given to the Chicago Special Olympics. Now, with the Olympics moved off campus the past two years, they have found other groups to fund. This year, WAA decided to donate $2,100 to four neighborhood school athletic programs.
The Order of the C has recently been blessed with leadership that is already active within the community. By organizing through representatives from each team, the Order of the C tries to establish a number of long-term relationships with short time commitments each year. This year, the group raised about $3,000 for AIDS Awareness through the U of C Eliminate Your Date and has added $1,000 of its own funds that it raised through concessions sales.
The group is now looking to adopt two or three local schools that can communicate what the Maroons can do to help. For example, teams may run a clinic for an hour and then have an hour of open academic time.
The efforts of teams and student-athlete organizations have been extremely fruitful in the community, but a number of Maroons also make a difference outside of their teams.
Fourth-year baseball player Tracie Neubrand leads the Absolute Value Math Camp, which tutors local students for two weeks each quarter. Starting next week, the women's soccer and football teams will send two or three members each night to help out. The swimming and men's soccer programs have also helped along with other students of the College.
Second-year Renee Neuner, Player of the Year in women's soccer, is another Maroon incredibly active within the community. Interested in nonprofit women's rights work, Neuner, along with some of her teammates, has helped with Rape Victim Advocates, Safe Space, and the Sue Duncan Children Center.
"For all students, it's easy in the academic environment we have to just try to get through our classes. I still think it's really important for us to realize how we can help in the community," Neuner said. "It's nice to also have a team environment to find out about some of the service opportunities. It gives a lot of people that have the intentions to take on projects the opportunity to learn about service."
The genuine love student-athletes have for working in the community comes across in both the breadth and depth of their work. What is perhaps just as impressive is how coaches and administrators are aware of the work of student-athletes from other sports. Despite all of the College's academic pressures, the Maroons show they know what it means to be a team, both as an athlete and as a member of our broader community.