Beyond the Shakeout
By Julia Halprin Jackson
The transition from sports to careers outside athletics often represents a sudden shift in identity for student-athletes. SJSU’s Beyond Sparta program offers personal and professional development opportunities for student-athletes to help them make the leap.
On a warm afternoon last September in San José State University’s South Campus athletics facility, Classye James, ’14 BBA, asked a crowd of student-athletes, “What words would you use to describe life after sports?”
As the students murmured their responses, she presented a slide with a list of adjectives: confused, lost, scared, worried. Basketball players, swimmers, gymnasts and more shared their anxieties about life after college sports. James, a former Spartan basketball player turned senior leader in diversity and inclusion at Cisco, explained that even professional athletes experience “the shakeout” — the realization that they must transition to a life beyond sport.
The phenomenon inspired her to create Shakeout Inc., a nonprofit that supports athletes as they transition into their careers, as well as Athletes Unite, a two-day conference in July 2022 that attracted more than 50 speakers and panelists to offer insight on business, entrepreneurship, mental health and self-care. Among the panelists was Tobruk Blaine, assistant athletic director of student-athlete development and creator of San José State’s Beyond Sparta program.
“Your identity is so caught up in sports, and creating a new identity is daunting. Beyond Sparta’s goal is to expose student-athletes to the campus resources and the opportunities that Silicon Valley presents.”
— Tobruk Blaine
(L-R) Tobruk Blaine and Classye James. Photo courtesy of SJSU Athletics.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you come from, how privileged your life was or wasn’t, if you come from a single-parent home — transitioning out of sport is hard for everyone,” says Blaine, who invited James to SJSU in fall 2022 as part of the WE LIFT: Women Empowerment — Leveraging & Influencing Female Talent speaker series.
“Your identity is so caught up in sports, and creating a new identity is daunting,” Blaine continues. “Beyond Sparta’s goal is to expose student-athletes to the campus resources and the opportunities that Silicon Valley presents.”
Originally hired in 2017 to create Beyond Football, a program that helps Spartan football players explore careers off the field, Blaine noticed that the pandemic underscored the need for career programming for men and women student-athletes in all 22 Division I sports at SJSU.
“When COVID hit in March 2020, we really started to see the impact of identity, or lack thereof, with our athletes,” she recalls. “At the time, the seniors that I had been working with in football were scrambling because they didn’t know what their lives looked like without sports. On top of not being able to practice, they were locked down in their apartments, not able to see their families.
“Fast-forward to the murder of George Floyd, and we saw yet another layer of anxiety and concern, as well as a strong, deep passion for advocacy and using their voices — but not knowing how. So, in summer 2020, I realized we need to offer these programs for everyone. I went all in.”
SJSU Athletics administrators, staff and students explain Beyond Sparta's charge.
The first step to going “all in,” Blaine says, is to start every meeting or program with a return to what SJSU Athletics calls “the charge.”
“The charge is our mission statement,” she says. “We ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing every day to contribute? How are we creating champions in competition, in the classroom and in the community?’ If we are doing our part in each of these areas, then we are contributing to our ultimate goal, which is the student-athlete experience.”
She argues that because student-athletes are trained to strive for excellence — they must jump through several literal and figurative hoops to be accepted, not only in terms of academics to SJSU, but to the NCAA and the regulations specific to their sports — they are uniquely qualified for jobs in multiple industries. Her challenge is convincing the athletes that they are capable, qualified and ready.
“When students ask me why companies might want to hire them, I say, ‘Because you are a champion in everything you do — how you attack your school work, how you communicate with your teachers, how you respond to being coached, how you compete,’” she adds.
“Student-athletes have different skill sets from their peers who do not compete, and we should celebrate that. Many companies believe that recruits can be taught technical skills, but they can’t be taught to be coachable or how to hold oneself accountable. These are skills that most athletes have.”
To meet her charge, Blaine partnered with then–academic support coordinator Annalisa Duarte to create SJ Speaks Up, a student-athlete group dedicated to improving diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on campus and beyond. Together, they launched a Beyond Sparta app to connect student-athletes and alumni. They reached out to the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, a group composed of representatives from each sport, to brainstorm how to support athletes during the pandemic.
Blaine leveraged partnerships with Silicon Valley employers to help student-athletes apply for internships and jobs. She connected with coaches to design curriculum specific to team needs. And, in July 2022, she flew 10 Spartans to Atlanta with her to attend James’ Athletes Unite conference.
Alexa Solomon at the Athletes Unite conference in summer 2022. Photo: Ronniell Garcia, '20 Radio-Television-Film.
Spartan gymnast Alexa Solomon, ’23 Public Health, was eager to attend Athletes Unite to learn how to enter the job market as a student-athlete while incorporating holistic approaches to support mental health.
Seeing James speak was especially powerful for Solomon, who injured both feet during her first SJSU gymnastics practice in fall 2019. After enduring surgery and an intensive rehabilitation process, she was cleared to return to practice in spring 2020 — just in time for the pandemic. The double whammy of recovering from injury as the world shut down made her prioritize mental health — not only for herself but also for her teammates and classmates.
When fellow Spartan student-athlete Riley Agerbeek, ’20 BS, ’22 MS Criminal Justice Administration, started the SJSU chapter of Dam Worth It, a nonprofit that uses sport and storytelling to end the stigma surrounding mental health, Solomon knew she had to get involved. Inspired by American Olympian gymnast Simone Biles, who spoke openly about her own struggles with mental health during the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Solomon knew all too well that being an athlete is so much more than competing on the mat.
“The student-athlete experience can be glorified from an outsider’s perspective,” she says. “You must be a full-time student, you have practice, you’re always traveling, you have community service. You’re learning to find yourself, just like every other student, and trying to set up your life after college. There’s a lot that people don’t see.”
Head Gymnastics Coach Joanne Bowers has witnessed Solomon’s growth and believes her involvement with Beyond Sparta and Dam Worth It contributed to her success. Despite Solomon’s injury, Bowers says that the gymnast has upped her game on the uneven bars and was even voted team captain.
“Alexa is very involved with Beyond Sparta and uses the resources it provides to look into internships, which ultimately helped her secure a full-time position [as a recruiter at Insight Global] after she graduates in the spring,” Bowers adds.
“I have had the privilege of coaching at many different universities and have never seen the magnitude of impact this type of program can have to enhance the lives of our student-athletes. Beyond Sparta really individualizes the work they do for each program and each person. The care they put into the programming and follow-through is fantastic. I cannot say enough good things about Beyond Sparta and will always support their mission to help our gymnasts.”
Myron (MJ) Amey, Jr. (center). Photo courtesy of SJSU Athletics.
Basketball player Myron (MJ) Amey, ’25 Communications, has also benefited from the communities that Beyond Sparta and Dam Worth It provide. Like Solomon, he suffered major injuries to both feet following his freshman year, which forced him to reflect more seriously about his own mental health. Inspired by Dam Worth It’s campaigns to increase awareness around community resources for student-athletes, Amey became the first male student-athlete to take a leadership role in the SJSU chapter.
“As student-athletes, we always talk about fighting through adversity, and it can be easy to forget that, athlete or not, we’re human beings at the end of the day,” Amey says. “Because basketball drove my life for so long, it took time to understand that my feelings [of sadness and depression] are valid.”
He adds that Beyond Sparta programs have reinforced the vital role that mental health plays in finding a path beyond sports. Following his injury in spring 2022, he resolved to find productive ways to channel his energy and passion for basketball. When Blaine offered to take him and other students to a Black Student-Athlete Summit, he leaped at the opportunity to network and learn from fellow student-athletes.
“When Tobruk invited me on the trip, I was so determined to go and willing to accept her help,” he reflects. “It ended up being one of the best things I could have done because it let me grow mentally and helped me gain more confidence in myself. I appreciate her because she gave me a vision of what I can be outside of basketball.”
San José State Athletic Director Jeff Konya is likewise a believer.
“It is important to provide additional opportunities and resources for our student-athletes, so when they are through playing competitive sports, they have the tools to begin a career outside of competition,” he says. “Tobruk Blaine and our staff do a tremendous job partnering with Fortune 500 companies in Silicon Valley that provide internships and workshops to educate our student-athlete population. In my opinion, Beyond Sparta is the premier life-skills program in the country in all of Division I athletics.”
“Beyond Sparta is the premier life-skills program in the country in all of Division I athletics."
— Jeff Konya