Ensuring Student-Athlete Success On and Beyond the Field

URI basketball star Tracey Hathaway ’86

URI basketball star Tracey Hathaway ’86 has made it her mission to ensure student-athletes make a seamless transition from school to work.

By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen

When Tracey Hathaway ’86 and Michele Washington met, the two became more than friends, more than roommates, more than even teammates. They became family.

In 1982, they were the first two Black women in URI history recruited for the Division I women’s basketball team. Meeting Washington cemented Hathaway’s decision to attend URI.

“At that time, URI was the only school recruiting someone who looked like me, and I didn’t want to be the token Black woman on a team. I knew right away Michele and I would stay friends for the rest of our lives.”

“For the rest of their lives” was 11 years. At 29, Washington was diagnosed with lupus. She died in 1993.

After Washington’s death, Hathaway campaigned to get her friend into URI’s Athletic Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame nomination form asks for a nominee’s degree, major, and year of graduation. It was then that Hathaway learned Washington hadn’t graduated and, therefore, was ineligible. Graduation never came up in conversation over the years. Hathaway, who’d graduated in December 1986, just assumed Washington had graduated the previous May.

“At that time, I was trying to get across the finish line myself. I didn’t realize that my best friend—a Kodak All-American for four years, one of the first two Black women to step on the court for the University in the women’s basketball program—you’re telling me this woman did not graduate?”

Ten years after her tenure at URI, Washington—still considered the greatest female player in the history of URI’s women’s basketball program—held nine all-time records for scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage, and free throws, among others.

“I went on a rampage,” Hathaway says. “She held all of those records, and we had had one of the winningest seasons in the history of the program.”

Washington was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.

As for Hathaway, the incident impelled her to leave a career in business for one in athletics. “I promised myself, then and there, that, under my watch, there’d never be a young lady of color who wouldn’t graduate from an institution I was coaching at.”

Hathaway spent two decades in college coaching and athletics administration, including a stint as the head women’s basketball coach at Roger Williams University (2006–09). Now a Ph.D. student at UMass Boston studying the experiences of Black female student-athletes, Hathaway is the co-founder of the athLEDA Foundation, a nonprofit that works with student-athletes and recent college graduates, assisting them in the transition from athletics to professional life. Now three years old, athLEDA’s services are in high demand.

The downside of life as a Division I athlete

Top elite college athletes can be valued in the six figures for the revenue their performance generates for their schools. A winning season can be extraordinarily lucrative for top coaches and their universities. In recent years, calls to compensate college athletes have been taken up by state legislatures and, as of February 2022, 28 states had passed laws allowing compensation of student-athletes for use of their names, images, or likenesses.

But there are other compelling issues facing college sports, such as the fact that men’s college basketball and football players are less likely to receive their diplomas than their peers in other sports, according to “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” a 2011 joint study conducted by the National College Players Association and Drexel University’s Department of Sport Management. The report notes that the shortfall between a full scholarship and a college athlete’s out-of-pocket expenses was $3,222 in 2010–11. Scholarships that include room and board keep 85% of college athletes on campus; 86% of those who live off campus live below the federal poverty level. It’s not a leap to infer that gaps between scholarship packages and living expenses might cause stress for financially strapped student-athletes.

“I promised myself, then and there, that, under my watch, there’d never be a young lady of color who wouldn’t graduate from an institution I was coaching at.” ­
—Tracey Hathaway ’86

Elsewhere in the report, stats imply that isolation might also play a role in a college athlete’s disenfranchisement in large and small ways. Team and classroom commitments can make full participation in campus life difficult.

For all the attention college sports—and athletes—receive, players’ needs—financial, social, psychological, and otherwise—are often overlooked, Hathaway says.

“They are spending an average of 70 hours a week on sports and academics—that doesn’t give much room for them to do much else.”

Now imagine the toll it takes on a college athlete when their athletics career ends.

Hathaway’s research, scholarly and empirical, says that some college athletes sink into bouts of depression lasting for as long as three years.

“It has nothing to do with whether they can grind and get their work done. They have a skill set that’s very transferrable in the real world. They know how to be on time. They know how to be a team player. They know resiliency and grit. They’re leaders,” Hathaway says.

“The question for me was, how do I help them transpose all these attributes to the real world?”

In her coaching days, students sought out Hathaway for social support, career advice, and help with résumé-building. “It was getting challenging to really concentrate on the Xs and Os when I had students coming to my office, saying, ‘Coach, I need help with internships, I need help with the résumé, I gotta write a cover letter.’

“I realized quickly that being a coach—especially being one of the few people of color in the athletic department—involved far more responsibility than just coaching.”

That sense of responsibility stuck. In 2020, Hathaway met Jelanna Olivera, an information systems management expert who’d made a career in big business and global health care, through Olivera’s mentor. Olivera’s son had sustained a career-ending head injury while playing college football. Olivera was interviewing athletes struggling with anxiety and depression as their careers as elite athletes came to a close. The athlete and scholar in Hathaway recognized the link between these illnesses and identity foreclosure, defined by the American Psychological Association as a premature commitment to a received identity, one bestowed by parents, teachers, or coaches.

Hathaway and Olivera realized their work, skills, and professional experiences were complementary. They decided to partner and focused on identifying industries that would benefit from the unique set of attributes a student-athlete presents. In 2021, they co-founded athLEDA. Though the nonprofit is run by a staff of only five people, Hathaway says it turns no one away.

“What we do is measure what matters. Any student can join us, but we look specifically at student-athletes—with a hyper-focus on student-athletes of color and women—and we focus on getting them into the STEM industries,” Hathaway says.

How athLEDA works

In September 2021, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued a proposal, “Transforming the NCAA D-1 Model,” urging the NCAA, the College Football Playoff, and Division I conferences to better align their policies and practices around revenue generation with the educational mission of NCAA Division I college athletics programs.

“The Knight Commission report dinged the NCAA for the lack of academic success, specifically what’s happening with their student-athletes of color,” Hathaway says. She and Olivera saw an opportunity to pair with the organization. Hathaway had held several roles with the NCAA during her time in athletics administration. She approached the NCAA. Several rounds of review later, “The NCAA jumped in with us,” Hathaway says.

NCAA director of leadership development DeeDee Merritt says the NCAA saw in athLEDA an opportunity not only to extend its mission, but also to expand its impact.

“The decision to work with athLEDA arose from a shared passion for student-athlete success, the need to uplift STEM as a viable and fulfilling career path for people of color, and mutual alignment in the desire to provide this experiential opportunity with our historically Black colleges and universities, Merritt says. “These foundational pillars ground us in our work and purpose and make the collaboration one of boundless potential and deep impact.”

Student-athlete interest in the program was immediate, which might have strained the powers of another small nonprofit, but athLEDA was nimble. The nonprofit pairs students with mentors and provides an app, which delivers additional support via a self-paced, online learning program. The app serves 326 students (72% women, at present). Broadly speaking, Hathaway and Olivera estimate they’ve interacted with around 1,000 people since incorporation. Their goal is to have 1,000 student-athletes using the platform by the end of 2023.

“I really want to understand what’s going on, particularly with Black female student-athletes at the collegiate level.” ­
—Tracey Hathaway ’86

Juvia Davis played softball at Indiana University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in human biology in 2022.

“With the confidence athLEDA instilled in me,”says Davis,”I found my voice as a young woman in the corporate world, and I plan to break down barriers for other women like me in STEM fields. Tracey Hathaway saw something in me before I saw it in myself.”

Asli Strozier played softball for Grambling State University in Louisiana. In 2022, she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science. This May, she’ll complete a second bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, also from Grambling.

“Tracey Hathaway and athLEDA helped me explore all of my options on the next steps after graduation,” Strozier says. “They have also provided me with hands-on experience, as well as networking with mentors and professionals in the tech field.”

The nonprofit works with three historically Black colleges and universities. Corporate partnerships have been forged, and mentors recruited. Of the mentors:

  • 77% work in STEM.
  • 70% are people of color.
  • 60% are women.
  • 54% are former student-athletes.

“We have CEOs of banks, people who are working in big pharma, people who have advanced degrees and have gone on into major consulting for different types of STEM organizations,” Hathaway says. “We have people who are in the IT and health industries who are mentors.”

The organization is looking to expand its offerings to help student-athletes who want to pursue postsecondary education, as well.

“We’re developing our students from a holistic perspective,” Hathaway says. “And if you look at the research, that’s what’s missing.”

Resilience, grit, and grind

Hathaway describes her own experience as a student-athlete of color as “insulated and isolated.”

“Michele and I had both been the tokens on our high school teams—which is why it was extremely important for me to not be the only Black player at URI. Right after I met Michele during our official visit, we were writing each other every week about what a great experience it was going to be, considering we would not be the tokens.

“So, the bond between us was formed prior to coming to campus. When we got to campus, things weren’t always easy, but because we had each other we could figure things out and cope and deal.”

In her first year at URI, Hathaway, a first-generation college student, came close to losing her scholarship.

“Coach told me if I didn’t get over the 1.8 GPA, I wouldn’t be eligible the next year to play. At that time, I was a math major. I did a quick calculation. I needed to get above a 1.8. At the end of my freshman year, I had a GPA of 1.9.”

Hathaway laughs.

“I really did not have any type of social support. My family, the community that I was in, didn’t know the ins and outs of college athletics, and knew even less about academia. In my junior year, my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer. At that point, I realized that I needed to get my act together. I had three younger siblings behind me, athletes as good as I was, who would need support.

URI basketball star Tracey Hathaway ’86 standing in a basketball arena in the bleachers

“I lifted my GPA, and I graduated in four and a half years. Mom passed away a few years later. At that point in time, I was working in the public sector, just handling my business. I had one child and another on the way. And Michele—I thought I knew everything about her—she ended up getting extremely sick and passed away.”

Honoring a life

URI’s Athletic Hall of Fame calls Washington the greatest female basketball player in URI history, one of only two Rhode Island athletes to score more than 1,000 points and grab at least 1,000 rebounds in their careers. The circumstances that conspired against Washington won’t likely ever surface. Hathaway still wonders.

“Michele and I never talked about the struggles that either of us were having academically. Michele wasn’t a first-gen kid. She was middle-class. Her parents were well educated. No woman athlete who worked as hard as Michele did should leave a college or university without walking across the stage in a cap and gown.

“I really want to understand what’s going on, particularly with Black female student-athletes at the collegiate level. Where is their sense of belonging? How do they figure out what their support is?”

“Michele’s presence is driving us for sure,” Olivera says. “Tracey wants to ensure that no other young woman’s experience becomes a footnote, and it is truly part of the story she’s telling.

“We’re here in honor of Michele; we stand on her shoulders.”

Few friendships rival Hathaway’s and Washington’s for impact. The combined effect of Washington’s example and Hathaway’s tenacity set athletic records and altered the thinking of colleges and universities—and even the NCAA. And Hathaway’s research and athLEDA’s work will almost certainly influence generations to come.

“When I graduated, I thought I would run a marathon. I thought I would be a triathlete. I failed to do that. But, in a way, I failed forward. I was one of the lucky ones.”

Photo: Nora Lewis