Making The Turn: Maddie Russell '24 Embraces SAAC Leadership Lessons

NCAA Division III 50th Anniversary LogoThis story is part of a series of stories celebrating the 50th anniversary of NCAA Division III and the 25th anniversary of Pacific University becoming a full Division III member.


Maddie Russell At NCAA ConventionFor the nearly 3,000 people who attended January’s NCAA Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, it was a chance to have a voice in shaping one of the most defining eras in intercollegiate athletics.

For Pacific University’s Maddie Russell ’24, the convention was a defining moment in her educational journey.

“It was life-changing,” said Russell, a member of the Pacific swim team who attended as the legislative chair of the Northwest Conference’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “It was a whirlwind and it all happened so fast, but it was so incredible to be part of that experience with so many other amazing Division III athletes and leaders.”

Russell, along with student-athletes representing Division III’s 44 conferences, traveled to Phoenix as members of the Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), a group designed to provide the athlete voice to the association’s governance structure. Each NCAA division, conference and institution has a SAAC.

This year, SAAC representation was more important than ever. For the first time, each divisional SAAC received a vote in the NCAA’s business sessions, taking direct action on legislation alongside athletic directors, presidents and chancellors.

That voting power comes at a critical time in the NCAA’s history. Not only has the association changed its basic structure in the last two years, granting greater autonomy to each division, but President Charlie Baker has proposed radical changes to the student-athlete experience, including paying Division I athletes. The NCAA also entered into a new television and streaming rights agreement with ESPN.

While all of those changes seem specific to Division I, Russell understands how those changes will have a direct impact on experiences for her and other Division III student-athletes.

“When you think about how the budget breaks down across the NCAA, all of the divisions get a percentage,” Russell said of the eight-year, $920 million deal. “So the more money the association makes, the more money Division III gets. Because it is an association-wide deal, it was exciting to hear that we might be getting better championships.”

The education process is part of Russell’s role as the president of the Pacific University SAAC, which is comprised of 72 members representing all 24 Pacific varsity programs. The group meets once a week during the academic year, discussing issues affecting student-athletes both on campus and throughout Division III.

Every institution’s SAAC pursues its own goals and projects. And while discussion of issues and legislation is important to Pacific’s SAAC, more important has been creating a sense of camaraderie among the university’s student-athletes, who comprise 40% of Pacific’s undergraduate student body.

“Here at Pacific, SAAC is a way to unite the athletes. We use it as a way for athletes on campus to get to know each other, to support each other, to have fun at events other than their own or just the bigger sports,” Russell said. “We want people to go to tennis matches and swim meets, go have fun and support their fellow athletes.”

Maddie Russell Racing As A Member Of The Pacific Swim TeamInvolvement with SAAC has been a natural extension of the athletics experience for Russell, a four-year member of the Pacific swimming program from Simi Valley, California. She concluded her career in February, competing in the 100 and 200-yard butterfly races and the 400-yard individual medley at the NWC Swimming Championships.

A sports leadership and management major, Russell’s experience with SAAC and her travel to the NCAA Convention has provided valuable lessons that will help her towards her career goal of becoming a college athletic director.

One of the most important of those lessons is in the fine art of networking with other professionals who could help her along her journey.

“It is about making a more personal connection with somebody and getting to know them on a personal level before finding out how I can use them as a resource,” Russell said. “And I am glad that I did because the few connections I made ended the convention by saying, ‘When you graduate and need a job, call me.’ I know that works. Connect personally first.”

Before she utilizes those personal connections, however, Russell has plenty she wants to accomplish before her term as Pacific’s SAAC president ends at the end of the academic year. She wants to implement an event connecting SAAC and the university’s Unified Sports program. She wants Pacific to participate in the NCAA’s “Game Day The DIII Way” program, an initiative to achieve better fan decorum at games.

Russell also wants to see Pacific get involved with the Division III OneTeam Program, which helps educate student-athletes, coaches and administrators on LGBTQ issues within college athletics. Russell was particularly inspired by Danielle O’Leary, associate athletic director at William Peace University, who helps facilitate the OneTeam program for the NCAA.

“I wrote it down. I want to bring it back (to Pacific),” Russell said. “There are things that are easy enough to do that we can implement that would create a more inclusive environment not only at Pacific, but all of our Northwest Conference institutions.”

Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024