More than 80 percent of college athletes are never seen on TV, and nearly 99 percent never turn pro. In her first book, The Rebounders: A Division I Basketball Journey, Amanda Ottaway '12, lifts the curtain on the life of an average NCAA Division 1 women's basketball player. In it, she acknowledges the contributions of the women who came before -- from the first full class of women admitted to Davidson as degree earning students in 1973 to the professional athletes who inspired her and her teammates.
"When the law [Title IX] passed, just one in 27 high school girls played sports," Ottaway writes. "By the time my teammates and I headed to college, that number was about two in five."
Ottaway offers an insider's perspective into the connections between past and present, and the everyday issues, triumphs and failures she faced as a female athlete in the 21st century playing her sport at the highest collegiate level.
Ottaway visited campus as part of the fall Davidson Reads series, sponsored by the English Department. The following is a Q&A with her, edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you come to the decision to write The Rebounders?
The Rebounders was actually born in my creative nonfiction class at Davidson with Dr. Cynthia Lewis. I wrote an essay for that class about my basketball experience, and somebody later told me it should be a book. And so I took her seriously and wrote it. It was many years in the works, but I got serious about it in around 2014.
Most college athletes that don't go on to become professional athletes. This book tells an untold story.
I do hope that The Rebounders fills a niche for college athletes because only about one percent of women's college basketball players go to the WNBA. Five percent overall play pro, including overseas. For men, those numbers are about one and 20 percent, respectively. It's about the same for men. Davidson athletes are actually the rule, not the exception. Every March Madness, the top 64 women's teams in the country continue their season. That leaves approximately 280 teams who did not make it, whose seasons are more or less over -- that was always us. I feel for those teams every March. So I'm watching the 64 who made it, and I'm also mourning for the 280 who didn't. I do hope The Rebounders provides some kind of relational point for the college athletes who have no choice but to try hard in school and try to get good jobs after college, because they know they're not going to go pro.
You write about how interactions with coaches affect players.
One thing I really wanted to focus on in the book is the power dynamics between coaches and players, because it's an odd profession in that the coaches are adults whose jobs and livelihoods and families and homes depend entirely on a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds. That creates a skewed power dynamic, and it puts the coaches under a lot of pressure to win games. And that means that in turn, the players are under a lot of pressure. One thing our team psychologist said to us once was that every single little thing your coach says or does impacts you or can impact you. I'm hoping that coaches understand that a player might remember forever something that they might forget, like a little throwaway comment they make.
I've never been a coach, but I recently stayed with a teammate whose fiancé is a college football coach. He said, "Coaching is kind of like you're a surgeon, except you're not allowed to do the surgery. You're instructing an 18-year-old how to do the surgery. You're standing on the sideline. You can't touch anything, and a bunch of other people are yelling at the 18-year-old also. And if they mess it up, you get in trouble." And I thought that was a pretty apt description. And never having been a coach I empathize, but I'm also hoping that The Rebounders kind of encourages that communication.
How did basketball become your sport?
I grew early. I was my full height by 14. I had been playing soccer, and I was a very dominant soccer player because I was so much bigger than everybody else, and then I realized that I wasn't actually good at soccer. I was just tall. And so that kind of took a back seat when I discovered basketball. When I was 14, I decided that I wanted to play in college at the Division I level, and so I did everything I could to make that happen.
What is it about the sport you love? And are there things you dislike?
One of the things I love about basketball is that it's a low maintenance sport. You really just need a ball and a hoop. So it's democratic in that way. A lot of people play it. A lot of people love it. I love the team aspect, and that's something that I came to love even more in college. I appreciate playing a zone defense, where everybody has to move on the same string and everybody has to cover each other's back. It's really rare that everybody moves where they're supposed to at the same time, but when they do, it's really, really special. I don't like running very much, so that part is hard. And losing... I don't like losing, as it turns out.
So how do you feel about the sport now that you've had a career as an NCAA athlete?
I love basketball, and I think for a while I forgot that or was kind of pushing it away, or I was trying to love it less because there were a lot of factors that were making it difficult. But I love it very deeply. Always will.
How did the success of the men's basketball team affect your experience as an athlete?
The men's basketball team did really well while I was at Davidson, and that was exciting. It was a lot of fun for us to watch and be around, and feel like we kind of got to share with them. And it also made our losses hurt that much worse, I think. Being that close to success was challenging. I was not on the men's team, so I'm sure they had their own challenges within that success. I know that we loved them, and we were really happy for them, and it was also kind of hard.
We talk about Davidson's stringent academic standards, and how they apply to scholar-athletes. Do you feel like that's true to your experience?
I would like to say that as a gainfully employed adult, I am very glad that Davidson had strict academic standards for its athletes. As a player it was tough. Our professors were one group of grownups and our coaches were another group of grownups, and what each group wanted from us was very different. And so we were kind of running back and forth trying to keep everybody happy, and trying to keep our heads above water. At least that's how I felt. I'm glad that Davidson does not compromise its academics for its athletics. I think that was a really important part of my experience and my development as a person, and I'm grateful for it -- but it is not easy.