As the start of class approaches, other bleary-eyed students saunter into the classroom. Seated in the front row with a pair of earbuds draped around her neck, Atkins blends into the crowd. Still, she remains acutely aware of the microscope under which she and other athletes at Texas go about their days. She talks candidly about this fact of life as she waits for class to begin.
“I think it’s cool,” Atkins says. “Coming to UT, it’s a big school, so you kind of expect that kind of thing. You have a big name and big franchise. If you want to be a part of that, you’re going to represent it in some kind of fashion without even trying to.”
Here in the darkened lecture hall, it seems as if Atkins couldn’t be farther from the bright lights of the Frank Erwin Center that await her this evening. But with a professional career in mind, Atkins constantly thinks about her brand: how she carries herself, the kinds of things she says to the media, how she interacts with fans.
“The whole branding thing, you have to think about it, especially if you want to do what I want to do. It’s something that you have to think about, just knowing that you’re always being watched.”
Atkins got a taste of the attention even before she became a Longhorn. She arrived on campus in the summer of 2014 as a vaunted high school athlete from Duncanville, a suburb of Dallas. A consensus All-American, Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year and the No. 1-ranked guard in her recruiting class, according to ESPN, Atkins led basketball powerhouse Duncanville High to back-to-back state titles in 2012 and 2013.
The Texas program was in the midst of an upswing when Atkins committed the summer before her senior year. In her second season at the helm, Aston coached the Longhorns to a third place finish in the Big 12 — their best conference finish since 2005 — and their first win in the NCAA tournament since 2008. Still, Texas had yet to reclaim its spot among the nation’s elite. The commitments of Atkins and Brooke McCarty, the No. 6 guard in the nation according to ESPN, marked a huge recruiting win for Texas. Their added presence had the potential to change the trajectory of the program.
Atkins was drawn to the opportunities — and expectations — at a school like Texas.
“It’s all serious. It’s business,” Atkins says. “And our coach reminds us of that all the time. We signed our National Letters of Intent to get a great education, graduate and perform every day. And that’s in the classroom and on the court. You hear that all the time. It’s a constant reminder.”
As a freshman, Atkins originally planned to enroll in pre-med classes, or major in psychology. She opted instead for a major in sport management and a minor in business, a course plan that she said better mirrored her experiences out of the classroom as a student-athlete.
“Every single one of my sport management classes I’ve loved” Atkins says. “That’s why I love my major so much. The classes are so fun. They’re all just real world application, and that’s always fun.
“I go to class, and then I go to practice, or I go to class and then we have the media. It’s just cool to see it in action after they’ve already talked about it.”
This morning, though, her class has almost nothing to do with sports or business. Black and white images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera flash across the screen as the professor lectures on modern Mexican art. After class, Ariel admits this isn’t her favorite part of the semester. That section came earlier, when the class covered the work of Italian masters such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. It was an especially relevant section for Atkins, who in August traveled to Italy with her teammates to compete in a series of exhibition games. In preparation for the trip, the team took a class on Italian culture and history, and visited historic sites, including the Sistine Chapel and the Trevi Fountain, once they arrived.
Before the summer began, Atkins had never traveled overseas. By the end of August, she was a seasoned globetrotter. She joined the Longhorns in Italy after playing in Tokyo with the USA U23 Women's National Team, one of 12 players to make the squad. Atkins started all three games of the tournament, helping the USA to capture the tournament championship over Canada, Australia and Japan. In between Tokyo and Italy, she stopped off in Paris.
“The summer was just craziness,” Atkins says as she shakes her head.