They wear the same purple and gold uniforms, tap their IDs in the lobby of Piano Row, and may even know more about the Lions than the average student, but several of the department’s student-athletes aren’t actually enrolled at Emerson College.
Instead, these students attend either Berklee College of Music or Massachusetts College of Art and Design, neither of which have an athletic department, and are able to play for Emerson because of an NCAA-approved consortium between the three schools.
“They’ve made an impact on our varsity sports teams,” said Stanford Nance, the senior associate director of athletics. “We need that larger number. We need to be innovative with how we fill our roster.”
This partnership originated first between MassArt and Emerson in the early 1990s, according to Nance. It has grown since then to include Berklee in 2004, and has helped bolster Lions rosters, despite facing scheduling and recruiting challenges. Nance estimates that about 230 Emerson students participate in athletics every year, and an additional 30 come from Berklee and MassArt.
For junior Berklee student Dan Knight, a forward on the men’s soccer team, playing a varsity sport in college seemed impossible just a few years ago.
“Berklee was the only place that I wanted to go,” said Knight, an electronic production and design major. “At the time I thought I had to give up [soccer] to do that.”
Berklee and MassArt students are typically recruited later than their Emerson counterparts, according to Nance. It wasn’t until Knight was exploring the depths of his college’s website after his high school senior soccer season ended that he realized his over-decade-long playing career didn’t have to end.
“I ended up being almost a normal recruit,” said Knight, who’s played for Emerson since freshman year at Berklee. “I went to preseason and stuff, which is sometimes uncommon for Berklee students.”
Typically, coaches talk to potential athletes throughout the college application process. But with Berklee and MassArt students, the recruiting timeline is delayed—the June before freshman year, or even later—because Emerson coaches need to wait until these students actually enroll.
Nance said at the beginning of the academic year, Emerson sends representatives to Berklee and MassArt to recruit prospective athletes at their organization fairs. Though winter and spring sports have more breathing room to work with these students, fall sports, like the soccer teams, don’t have the luxury of time because their seasons have already begun.
“We give all of [the interested students] tryouts,” said Nance. “A lot of the time they get the tryout after the fact, because we often start school earlier than them.”
Freshman basketball player Lauren Madigan, an illustration major at MassArt, said a few months into the fall semester she received an email asking if anyone in the student body was interested in playing at Emerson. Madigan contacted the women’s basketball coach, Bill Gould, and was invited to play a few pickup games.
“It was kind of weird, because [Gould] wasn’t expecting a call or email from me,” said Madigan, who said she’s been playing since third grade. “He couldn’t guarantee anything.”
Madigan said she was invited to join the team after a few weeks of informal practice.
Knight said he was lucky to find out about the partnership when he did.
“A lot of kids don’t [know about it],” said Knight. “We get them two weeks into the season, and then by the time they start playing it’s halfway through the season.”
One student, two schools
This past season, Emerson’s largest team, men’s soccer, had 28 members, seven of whom didn’t attend the college—the most of any squad.
“[Freshman year], I got to Boston a few weeks before Emerson started school [for preseason],” said Knight. “All I had to do was soccer. It really eased me in, and by the time I started my school, I had all these friends at Emerson.”
This year, MassArt and Berklee students were on the men’s soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and cross country teams. On the women’s side, the softball, soccer, cross country, and basketball rosters were boosted by these external student-athletes.
For Madigan, it wasn’t until the women’s basketball team went on its winter break trip to St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, that she felt she fit in.
“I don’t see everyone every day in class, and I don’t live on campus, so it was really hard to feel like part of the team,” said Madigan, a forward. “I think that [trip] was really the turning point for me in terms of social relationships with my teammates, because I got to spend time off the court with them.”
Participation fluctuates among the sports every year, according to Nance. The teams that have the most student-athletes from Berklee or MassArt often offer “a sense of family” within the group of outside students, he said.
“I’ve been here for so long, it’s almost like I’m a student at two different schools,” said Knight. “Being on the soccer team at Emerson has always been a big part of my identity.”
Like Knight, MassArt sophomore Vanessa Baird’s first college experience was her soccer preseason at Emerson, which she said has led to stronger relationships with her teammates.
“If they have a show, I’ll go to that,” said Baird, a midfielder. “I’ve made Emerson friends outside the team, too.”
Commitments and sacrifices
Since a majority of the department’s student-athletes go to Emerson, practices and games are scheduled around Emerson’s typical class schedule—even they have to miss the occasional class for a game. MassArt and Berklee students, however, sometimes can’t finagle their schedule to work.
“To have a MassArt or Berklee student on your team, you have to give them some leeway,” said Nance. “The coaches have to be innovative so that if that student is good enough to compete, they can play, because we don’t want to penalize a kid for missing a practice if they have class.”
Baird, a double major at MassArt, said she had to miss Friday practices because of class.
“I did feel like I was missing out a little bit,” said Baird. “It sucks when you miss a practice, because then you’re only practicing three times a week instead of four.”
Her coach, David Suvak, said his priority for his athletes is always academics.
“Just like any other student, they go to class and participate in their school,” said Suvak.
Though MassArt and Berklee are relatively close to Emerson’s campus, these students still have to factor the commute into their decision to join a team.
“Sometimes they’re practicing here at 6 in the morning and they have to adjust their schedules and commute back to campus,” said Nance. “They can’t just walk upstairs and shower and go to class.”
Madigan said relying on the T is something that weighed heavily on her decision to play.
“It’s at least an hour more out of my day,” she said. “The time I’m spending commuting, [I] could be in the gym, or getting work done. I don’t think people really understand that commitment.”
Knight said even after the season ends, he spends a lot of time on campus because of offseason training.
“I’m there almost daily,” he said.
Last year, when Emerson introduced a new security system requiring college ID cards to be tapped 24/7 to enter buildings, it presented the department with a major issue: Berklee and MassArt students couldn’t access the Bobbi Brown & Steven Plofker Gym or the athletic training room in the Little Building. Nance said they issued IDs to these student-athletes that allowed access to those two areas.
“Now, once they’re part of a team, they can come and go, which is how it should be,” said Nance. “You want to make them feel a part [of the school].”
Along with the ID came preseason dining hall meals for fall sports athletes and full use of the fitness center.
When the athletic department had its logo contest last semester, MassArt and Berklee students were invited to participate, because Nance said the department wanted them to feel like part of the community.
“At Berklee, all of us soccer kids wear our Emerson stuff around,” said Knight. “We’re generally pretty proud of it.”
Despite these changes, Madigan said there’s still work to be done, especially for the commuting athletes.
“I have to go to Emerson six days a week for practices and games, it definitely adds up,” she said. “I think more students would want to be involved if they didn’t have to make that decision.”
Suvak has a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Boston Architectural College, which is part of the Professional Arts Consortium, though not included in the athletics partnership. ProArts is an agreement between six Boston colleges—including Emerson, MassArt, and Berklee—that allows for students to take classes and use resources at the other institutions.
“The relationship for me is very tight, because I understand what’s happening,” said Suvak. “I think it’s important for these athletes to have an opportunity like this.”