UIC Flames student-athletes bear the brunt of a cruel and unusual stoppage

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Happiness was the sound of ping pong balls slapping on paddles in the UIC baseball locker room. Pingpong, childish banter and the excitement of a new season that was only 11 days away. It was Monday. None of the Flames players saw the cruel boom coming.

“Guys,” they heard above the din. ” Listen. This is bad news.”

The Horizon League had decided to snatch playoff play from the Flames – of all the school’s winter and spring sports teams. Or maybe the UIC itself was to blame. After all, he had agreed to rules years before that would disqualify any school from conference tournaments that decided to leave the Horizon with less than a year’s notice. UIC announced last month that it would leave the Horizon for the Missouri Valley Conference on July 1.

But how much does it even matter which administrators — here or at the league office in Indianapolis — are at fault? It is the student-athletes who bear the burden. They are victims whose work, sweat and dreams are abandoned. They had no way of knowing that something like this could and would happen.

“It wasn’t on the radar for us,” senior first baseman Cory Moore said. ”It was like seeing a UFO: you couldn’t imagine it. It was tough, lots of sad faces. I spoke to the team as captain and, yes, my voice was shaking.

The women’s basketball team learned that from athletic director Michael Lipitz. In the midst of a tough season, the Flames held their ground in part thanks to the leadership of guard Tiana Joy Jackson, who did everything a student-athlete can do. She is on track to graduate this summer, after just three years, and plans to stay at UIC and pursue a master’s degree in marketing. She is the chair of the UIC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and — until her membership was suddenly revoked by the league, she says — was involved in more than one student committee nationwide. conference.

Tiana Joy Jackson

Steve Woltman | UIC Athletics

“You could hear a pin drop,” Jackson said of meeting Lipitz. ”It was quiet, this strange and awkward silence. You could almost hear everyone’s heart beating. We all had masks on, but you could just feel the jaw drop and the gasps. Everyone was speechless. I don’t think we knew what to say. How many athletes have faced the conference changes, how does it work?

”It was like the biggest slap in the face. The most discouraging thing you can do to an athlete is take away their ability to compete.

The baseball team is good enough – as it almost always is – to challenge for Horizon’s regular season title. The first runner-up can host the conference tournament, unless, of course, the first runner-up is UIC. An empty Curtis Granderson Stadium will be a grim sight in this case.

“None of us did anything wrong,” Moore said, “but we’re still going to pay the consequences for somebody else. We still have a regular season to play and we’re going to give it our all.” I think we will. We’ll make everyone look and say, ‘They should have been there.’ ”

Cydney Liebenberg came to UIC from South Africa and became its most decorated diver. A fifth-year senior, she is a five-time Horizon champion — twice on the 1-meter springboard and three times on the 3-meter springboard — and four times qualified for the NCAA in each event.

Liebenberg skipped the Horizon Championships last year to compete in the South African Nationals, and what did she do there? She won gold medals in three events. His dreams for a final college season were understandably huge. But the Horizon Championships begin Wednesday in Indianapolis, and Liebenberg and her swimming and diving teammates — who were scheduled to leave Tuesday — will stay home.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” she said. “I guess I’m still very proud of what I’ve done, but mostly I’m just very sad.”

She has firm plans to pursue a doctorate in physiotherapy at UIC, a place she loves, and looks forward to staying close to the team. But the bombshell Lipitz dropped in a team meeting was disappointing.

“Disbelief, emotion, really numbness,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want to believe it. It becomes more real when you see your teammates crying. ”

Liebenberg will travel to South Africa in April and compete in the national championships again, but right now she and a lot of UIC youngsters are hurting, offended and lost.

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Cory Moore

Steve Woltman | UIC Athletics

“I would ask anyone to step into our shoes,” Moore said. ”We’re here from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day — school, practice, homework. We do everything we can to represent Chicago well and leave a positive impact on our community – and then it happens.

”It does not harm the institutions. The Horizon League will be fine; UIC will be fine. It’s like two superpowers playing chess, and all student-athletes are just pawns.

Meanwhile, UIC athletes have seen the blame debate on social media, seen arrows pointing at the conference and others pointing at their school. What really matters is missing.

”[Rules] are made by people for people,” Jackson said. ”There is always the choice to respect them or to make an exception. Regardless of what the bylaws said, many people chose “no.” But who are they hurting?

The answer is obvious. And it’s a shame.

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