Blame game aside, it’s UIC’s athletes who bear the burden of a cruel, unusual flameout
Cydney Liebenberg, Tiana Joy Jackson and Cory Moore are among those whose work, sweat and dreams are being discarded. They had no way to know something like this could and would happen.
Happiness was the sound of pingpong balls smacking off paddles in UIC’s baseball locker room. Pingpong, youthful banter and the excitement of a new season whose opener 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 up. It’s bad news.’’
The Horizon League had decided to rip postseason play from the Flames — from all the school’s winter and spring sports teams. Or maybe UIC itself was to blame. It had, after all, agreed years before on bylaws that would render ineligible for conference tournaments any school that decided to leave the Horizon with less than a year of notice. UIC announced last month it will 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’s the student-athletes who are bearing the burden. They are victims whose work and sweat and dreams are being discarded. They had no way to know something like this could and would happen.
‘‘This 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, a lot of sad faces. I spoke to the team as a captain, and, yeah, my voice was quivering.’’
The women’s basketball team found out from athletic director Michael Lipitz. Deep into a difficult season, the Flames have held together in part because of the leadership of guard Tiana Joy Jackson, who has done everything right that a student-athlete can do. She’s on track to graduate this summer, after only three years, and plans to remain at UIC and pursue a master’s in marketing. She is the president of UIC’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and — until her memberships were revoked suddenly by the league, she says — was involved in more than one conference-wide student committee.
‘‘You could hear a pin drop,’’ Jackson said of the meeting with Lipitz. ‘‘It was quiet, this weird, awkward silence. You could almost hear everybody’s heart beating. We all had masks on, but you could just feel the jaw drops and the gasps. Everyone was speechless. I don’t think we knew what to say. How many athletes have dealt with conference changes, how it works?
‘‘It felt like the biggest slap in the face. The most disheartening thing you can do to an athlete is take away the ability to compete.’’
The baseball team is good enough — as it almost always is — to challenge for the Horizon regular-season title. The first-place finisher gets to host the conference tournament, unless, of course, the first-place finisher is UIC. An empty Curtis Granderson Stadium will be a bleak sight in that 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’ll give it our all. I think we will. We’ll make everybody look and say, ‘They should have been there.’ ’’
Cydney Liebenberg came to UIC from South Africa and has become its most decorated diver. A fifth-year senior, she is a five-time Horizon champion — twice in the 1-meter springboard and three times in the 3-meter springboard — and a four-time NCAA qualifier in each event.
Liebenberg skipped the Horizon championships last year to compete at the South African national championships, and what did she do there? She won gold medals in three events. Her dreams for one final college season were understandably huge. But the Horizon championships begin Wednesday in Indianapolis, and Liebenberg and her swimming and diving teammates — who were set to leave Tuesday — will stay home.
‘‘It’s really heartbreaking,’’ she said. ‘‘I guess I’m still really proud of what I’ve done, but mostly I’m just very sad.’’
She has firm plans to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy at UIC, a place she loves, and looks forward to remaining close with the team. But the bomb Lipitz dropped at a team meeting was disillusioning.
‘‘Disbelief, emotional, really numbness,’’ she said. ‘‘I couldn’t believe it, 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 nationals again, but right now she and a lot of young people at UIC are hurting, offended and at a loss.
‘‘I’d ask anyone to put themselves in our shoes,’’ Moore said. ‘‘We’re here from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day — school, practice, homework. We’re doing everything we can to represent Chicago well and leave a positive impact on our community — and then this happens.
‘‘It isn’t hurting the institutions. The Horizon League is going to be fine; UIC is going to be fine. It’s like two superpowers playing chess, and all the student-athletes are just pawns.’’
Meanwhile, UIC athletes have seen the blame debate on social media, seen arrows pointed at the conference and others pointed at their school. It misses what really matters.
‘‘[Rules] are made by people for people,’’ Jackson said. ‘‘There’s always a choice to abide by them or make an exception. Regardless of what the bylaws said, a lot of people chose ‘no.’ But who are they hurting?’’
The answer is plain to see. And it’s a crying shame.