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Game On! Athletic Directors Come Together at SAIS Conference

Wednesday, January 20, 2016  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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At the inaugural SAIS Athletic Directors Conference held January 14-15 in Atlanta, the association welcomed 72 representatives from schools in 11 U.S. states and Mexico. Attendees included primarily athletic directors but also school heads and principals.  

Lee Burns, head of McCallie School in Chattanooga, TN, kicked off the program with a presentation on "21st Century Athletic Programs: How Independent Schools Can Effectively Use Athletics to Support the Broader School Mission." Athletics play a key role in students' development as they learn about teamwork, collaboration, hard work, adversity, problem-solving, as well as how to depend on others and have others depend on them. They also get to play and have fun, which can be easy to forget in a highly competitive atmosphere. "Done the right way, athletics can and should involve fun," Burns said. 

Affiliated with athletics, students have the opportunity to work in other roles and learn about athletic training, sports medicine, and technology. McCallie, for example, produces a number of videos about its different sports programs, and many schools broadcast their games live with an entire tech crew on hand. 

To the school's benefit, athletic programs help to build community and team spirit and sometimes serve as a "front door" to the school, contributing to the marketing program and overall brand. "What do your facilities look like? Are they well maintained? Are you sending the right message?" Burns asked. 

As many schools strive to create opportunities for non-tuition revenue, sports programs play a role in that effort through merchandise sales, specialty camps for current students or the public, and designated donations. Funding is important as athletic departments have become more and more complex in recent years. Athletic directors manage numerous responsibilities, from the hiring and firing of coaches to maintaining equipment and facilities, to helping to market the school. 

Jeff Walrich, athletic director at Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, OH, presented "Social Media and Marketing for Athletic Programs." Independent schools that are competing for students in enrollment can use sports social media as an additional outlet to promote the school. It is also a tool to engage current students and fans through popular platforms. Schools can post play-by-play reports during games, videos, and links to articles about the school. And in the event of game cancellations due to weather or other issues, sending a message through social media is the fastest way to reach people. Walrich has "trained" parents and others in the school community to look to the school's social media accounts for information. 

On the second day of the conference, SAIS welcomed speakers to discuss the serious topics of concussions and legal issues. Dr. Anna Moore and Donna Hays from The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, outlined the work of their school's Concussion Team in their presentation "Concussions in High School Athletics: Proper Return-to-Learn Protocols." Their team manages injuries that take place on campus as well as any that occur outside of school to any of their students. Using a specific treatment protocol, the two-fold program covers steps to help students Return to Learn (RTL) and Return to Play (RTP), taking a safe and conservative approach to help students heal properly. Their team informs a small group of faculty and administrators who have been well educated about the protocol and how to communicate with a student's parents and teachers. Moore and Hays also discussed the challenges they face, such as when students don't report their injuries or downgrade their injuries, parents who don't support the program, teammates who don't support the injured player, and when doctors don't agree with the school. "It's not going to hurt you to be conservative, especially when you have to rely on the communication of a teenager," Hays said. 

In the final session, John Cooper, senior VP and associate general counsel for IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, spoke about "Current Legal Issues with High School Athletics." Concussion liability is a common concern, as well as drug testing, good sportsmanship and behavior issues with bad sportsmanship, social media and freedom of speech, and assaults during a game. Cooper cited numerous real-life cases during his presentation.

"There is a real thirst for athletic directors to have a forum like this conference in the independent school setting," said Jay Watts, CMAA, assistant director of athletics at The Westminster Schools and the creative genius behind the SAIS Athletic Directors Conference. "It filled a unique need for professional development and people got a lot out of it." 

All of the speaker presentations are available at under Speaker Resources.  


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