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SeanFrazier

Sean Frazier, the athletics director for Northern Illinois University, spoke at a ProSquared luncheon on Friday afternoon.

Helping student athletes excel in life beyond sports was at the heart of a recent talk from a prominent college athletics administrator in downtown Madison on Friday.

Sean Frazier used to run the day-to-day operations of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's athletics department before leaving to become the athletic director for Northern Illinois University in 2013. Speaking at the Inn on the Park at a luncheon organized by the Madison nonprofit ProSquared, Frazier talked about topics like the marketing of college sports and the state of the NCAA.

At the crux of the talk, however, was the significance of mentorship, education and compensation for student-athletes. 

Frazier said that fostering success off of the playing field wasn’t something he appreciated until he was an athletics administrator at the University of Maine. He said that a defining moment of his career happened when a colleague pulled him aside and criticized how he was approaching his job.

“She said, ‘You are part of the problem, not a part of the solution. You are recruiting these athletes to your campus, but you’re not providing leadership to help them grow past their sport,’” he said.

Since then, said Frazier, he’s changed his tune, turning his focus to things like the tricky balance students have to maintain between their academic and athletic lives. He acknowledged that such a balance is tough but doable, as long as students are committed and there are structures and mentors in place to help them along the way.

“You can definitely achieve a balance between academics and athletics,” he said. “But there has to be (support). It has to be top-down, bottom-up, side to side, all in the middle. And it has to be community-based.”

Frazier stressed the importance of exposing student-athletes to community groups, and of teaching student-athletes things like financial literacy — things he said he could have used when he was in school.

“You see so many horror stories,” he said. “I was one of them. I had a credit card, and I didn’t realize I had to pay that back.”

Frazier also spoke to the hot-button topic of student compensation for playing sports. A growing number of people argue that student-athletes deserve to get some money for putting long hours into an activity that has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry.

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While full-fledged contracts for student athletes are not a reality, the so-called “big five” NCAA conferences — the Big 12, Southeastern, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 — have begun to provide stipends for athletes that cover “cost of attendance” at an institution. NIU is among them.

Frazier said that providing the stipends is not just the right thing to do — it’s necessary in order to stay competitive.

“If we do not do that, so-and-so athlete is going to say, ‘Well, you’re not doing that, so I’m going to go here,’” said Frazier.

The challenge then becomes how to pay for those expenses, said Frazier. Especially with budgets tightening, he said, it puts a lot of pressure on athletic departments to find new sources of funding.

ProSquared, which focuses on the intersection of business and sports, has begun to host talks like Frazier's. The group previously sponsored a panel discussion on life after professional football that included former University of Wisconsin football star Chris Borland.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.