PHOENIX – College athletes must juggle multiple responsibilities, but a new change on the horizon may have a deeper impact than people anticipate.
The landscape took a big hit this past summer with the continuation of conference realignment. The Pac-12, originally known as the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC), has been around since its founding in December 1915, but one of the country’s most illustrious conferences has now become the latest victim with teams jumping ship to join new conferences.
The Big Ten announced plans in 2022 to add powerhouses UCLA and USC starting in 2024. The Pac-12 losing two of its top schools was already a big hit, but that would only be the beginning.
In August, the Big Ten announced the addition of Washington and Oregon. Adding salt to an open wound, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah jumped to the Big 12.
The movement did not stop there.
In September, the ACC announced it would add Cal and Stanford, providing the Northern California schools a home, albeit one across the country.
As the dust settles ahead of the 2024 season, the impact of conference realignment stretches far beyond games, finances and media rights deals.
“What cost is it to those student athletes,” Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz asked in a press conference in August. “We’re talking about a football decision … But what about softball and baseball who have to travel cross country? Did we ask about the cost to them?”
The former Pac-12 schools now must consider different stipulations in the arena of planning, particularly when it comes to in-season travel. Rather than traveling regionally, teams will now have to make cross-country arrangements for conference play.
Oregon softball pitcher Morgan Scott acknowledged the new reality for Pac-12 schools immediately and shared her concerns in a tweet.
“Anyone going to talk about all the other sports that play multiple games in a weekend?” Scott asked. “The balance of practice, travel, school, and having a social life is already hard enough. Why add even more stress?”
Oregon’s Big 10 schedule will take them as far as 2,900 miles away from home to play Rutgers. Before the switch, Oregon’s farthest conference opponent was the 1,300-mile trip to Tucson to play Arizona.
Outside of games at Stanford, the Golden Bears’ conference opponents will require an average trip of 2,000 miles, with the 3,084-mile trip to Boston College marking Cal’s longest trip.
“I know for our team, what’s taking a big toll on us is obviously the travel like us and Stanford to have to go to the East Coast, like every other weekend. And that’s going to be huge,” said Paige Morningstar, a volleyball player at Cal. “Like when we talk about sleep and mental health, like those things will be dramatically affected.”
A typical weekend for Cal volleyball for games on the road consists of traveling on Thursday for games Friday and Sunday, and returning Sunday night. Now, with the conference switch, longer flights and different time zones are added to the equation.
Morningstar shared how the team tries to stay on track with academics by completing school assignments on the road or before a trip, but she anticipates a new level of stress with the change.
“Our stress levels I’m sure are going to be going through the roof,” Morningstar said. “Especially going to very high academic schools and trying to complete all of our assignments and do all the extracurriculars we need to do before Wednesday, for us to leave and take a big trip.”
Cal volleyball’s Sarah Schrag has a unique situation as a philosophy major.
“There aren’t a lot of class options,” Schrag said. “Sometimes there’s a class that I need to take that’s only in the morning, and I just simply can’t take that class because I can’t miss practice.”
It’s no secret that college athletes already juggle a hectic daily workload between their school and sport schedules. Aside from juggling everything their sport requires from them, athletes in college also have to balance full class schedules and social lives while finding the time to eat and sleep.
In November 2021, the NCAA opened a survey for athletes that provided them with a space to share how they were feeling.
The survey revealed that 25% of male athletes and 47% of female athletes who participated in sports felt overwhelmed. Related to sleep, 19% of male and 28% of female athletes said they experienced difficulties, and 22% and 38% of male and female athletes also shared that they felt mentally exhausted.
In 2021, the CDC conducted a study to see the connection between inadequate sleep and mental distress. The study found that “participants who averaged 6 hours or less of sleep per night were about 2.5 times more likely to have frequent mental distress.”
Similarly, Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry states that “it is now recognized that sleep problems can also contribute to the onset and worsening of different mental health problems.”
To find a balance between her sport and her major, Schrag works with her coaches and professors, whether that be doing individual work on the court or going to office hours with her professors.
The challenges of making sure she is on track to graduate and staying on top of her game add another set of stresses to her day. One of the ways to make sure she is not getting too overwhelmed by her schedule is by taking advantage of her team’s off day.
“I try to keep that off day completely clear of class, or anything that has a scheduled time, so that I can have that day to do whatever I need to do for me,” Schrag said.
Cal volleyball’s schedule consists of practices six days a week, with its off day typically scheduled on Mondays. A typical day for Morningstar includes practice from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., hitting weights for an hour after practice, then the training table until noon, and any of the classes and meetings she has scheduled for the rest of the day.
Morningstar uses her off day by doing things she loves outside of volleyball, including mentoring young female athletes.
“That’s something I wish I would have had growing up,” Morningstar said about her mentorship. “So I love to help them out. Calling them every week is great.”
An athlete’s off day is essential to keep that balance between the intensity of being in season and staying on top of school. Morningstar mentioned the high pressure of being at the Division I level and the physical and mental preparedness that comes with that.
“It is a challenging task,” Morningstar said. “So taking those breaks when you can and having your own time to yourself, doing the things that you love, I think is a great way to cope with that.”
The NCAA and the ACC have been working with the athletes to help them navigate the transitions they are facing with the conference change. Morningstar, as her team’s ACC representative, has been attending meetings to talk about the conference switch.
The meetings occur a couple of times throughout the semester and allows for conversation about scheduling and what a potential conference tournament may look like. Morningstar shared how the athletes are grateful that the conference is considering the athlete’s opinions before making big decisions.
“It will for sure be a challenge, but I think it’s very doable,” Morningstar said. “And I think we’re all just as excited as we are nervous for the big change.”
One of the biggest concerns with conference realignment has a more personal impact. A lot of athletes tend to pick their schools because of the ability to stay close to home. Conference realignment shakes up that dynamic.
Joining the Big 12, ASU will travel an average of 1,200 miles, with its longest trip measured just over 2,100 miles to play Central Florida. Before the switch, the Sun Devils’ longest trip was the 1,436-mile trip to Seattle to play Washington.
“I chose to play in the PAC-12 because of the ability to play close to home and in front of family,” ASU softball player Shannon Cunningham said in a tweet. “I chose the PAC so my family didn’t have to worry about far travel or giving up all their vacation time just to come see me.”
On the flip side, Cal’s switch to the ACC allows Morningstar to play in her home state again.
“I’m from Pittsburgh, so to go to Pitt would be awesome to see my family and friends. I always loved that game at Louisville,” Morningstar said.
In an article for Forbes, Susan Shaw spotlights the human cost of conference realignment. She explains that while the financial implications are the easier story to tell, seeing how players, coaches and parents will be affected by this change is a story that is just as important, if not more.
While many unknowns exist as conference realignment looms and college sports say goodbye to the Pac-12, all eyes will be on next season to see how the changes all play out.