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Volume 21 No. 26
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Giving college athletes what they really need

O ne of the questions we’ve long pondered when it comes to NCAA sports is this: How hard is it for a good student athlete to get a great university education? And we ask that knowing a very small percentage of student athletes go to college for the sole purpose of getting drafted by a professional team.

But what about the student athletes who come to get a great education? Can they get one?

We know from NCAA data that more than 98 percent of all NCAA student athletes (regardless of division) won’t turn professional or go to the Olympics. In fact, despite the cashed-up dreams of their helicoptering parents, most NCAA athletes know by the end of their junior year their athletic career is closing out.

So a great education would seem like the No. 1 objective for the 98 percent. But is it?

To answer that, let’s create a parable: An energetic soccer coach recruits a talented young woman with preliminary designs on going to med school. She’s an excellent forward but isn’t the next Mia Hamm. She will play well in college and lead her college squad to numerous conference upsets but Team USA won’t come calling. Nor will the pros.

As a high GPA, multi-AP class kid with killer SATs, her recruitment adds hugely to the university’s academic profile. She is the ideal recruit. A role model student athlete.

But her situation, in practice, is not ideal. And it’s because of that word: “Practice” (the very one NBA star Allen Iverson once spoke about with such animation).

Practicing for regular-season games takes up a lot of time. So does weight training, physical conditioning, team meetings, film breakdown and sport-related travel.

In theory, the NCAA (working on behalf of its member institutions) suggests student athletes must adhere to a 20-hour (a week) rule for games and practice. This is sometimes abbreviated by administrators as 35-35-6 (which stands for 35 hours a week for academics, 35 for sport and six hours a night for sleep).

In reality, it is often quite easy to find student athletes living a 28-42-6.

So let’s go back to our parable where our pre-med student athlete finds she can’t miss classes or labs to attend practice or games. She has chemistry labs and 40+ hours of homework each week. Her soccer coach, trying to treat each player fairly, suddenly faces a big challenge.

The coach has to figure out how to do what’s best for the individual while not disrupting team practices because one or more athletes are forced to miss training in order to fulfill academic expectations.

The very real problem? Too much is needed by too many and there’s not enough of the individual to go around.
One argument (sometimes offered by faculty members) is suggesting this student athlete shouldn’t try to do both school and sports. Perhaps she should pick one and stick to it. Drop the pre-med dream and focus on soccer. Or join an intramural team and commit to becoming a doctor.

Collegiate student athletes continually face the ultimate test in juggling realistic goals.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

But our plucky heroine wants both. She is committed to a 40-40-4. And her reasoning is simple. For all of her young life, she’s balanced everything.

In high school, she got straight A’s while playing multiple sports, competing on top travel teams, volunteering at a local hospital and working a part-time job. Plus, she was able to maintain a vibrant social life (fueled by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat) while supposedly getting enough sleep.

The thought of not doing sport and academics has never really crossed her mind. Why not do it all again in college?

The answer? Because collegiate rigor is much harder.

True, there will be support systems offered by her university including the use of tutors and academic advisers. There will be study halls, psychologists and nutritionists. There will be a “village” of professionals assigned to help her navigate this journey. The NCAA will even enact and enforce policies designed to help her pull the whole thing off.

Great. But sometime during junior year, the rubber will hit the road. Academic pressures will increase while playing time potentially diminishes. New recruits come in.

Life balances and mental health may skew wildly based on personal relationships, pressures from home, disenchantment from the coaching staff and resistance from faculty members who dislike sports. Medical school “realities” will abound.

Our heroine needs exemplary grades. She still has to put together an application that competes with students who spent summers and free hours volunteering for global charities or working internships at medical firms.

Now, let’s add another dimension. Let’s say our soccer player is diverse.

You (the reader) can pick her diversity and base it on race, sexual orientation, religion or country of origin. Think how much more difficult this journey really is. Our soccer player has to accomplish two major goals (sport and studies) at the highest level, while also overcoming the very real “challenges” American society places on her.

Can she do it? We think so. And we believe every NCAA member school wants her to. But never doubt for a moment the difficulty involved.

There is great value found from sport participation in higher education. Universities, as Georgetown President John “Jack” DeGioia noted recently at a gathering of NCAA faculty athletic reps, exist to enhance the personal formation of young people. They exist for the faculty generating research and scholarship and for the commitment they provide to the common good.

“There is nothing else in our communities like our universities,” says DeGioia, a former student athlete. “Accordingly, we ask our students to make a commitment to excellence.”

In that regard, sport and higher education should co-exist for the very real results they annually produce. But know this: The sooner our young people realize they won’t go pro in sports, the earlier they can demand every ounce of life-enhancing educational value out of their athletic scholarship.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (oreillyn@ohio.edu) is the Richard P. & Joan S. Fox Professor and Sports Admin Department Chair at Ohio University. Their new book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” will be published next month.