Student Athletes: Set up for Failure or Success?

Student athletes tend to have many responsibilities in addition to the academic obligations that all college students already face. I have known student athletes to have mandatory weight lifting and running at 6 o’clock in the morning in order for the team to meet at a time that would not interfere with classes. Oftentimes practices are held every day for multiple hours each day. During the sporting season, students tend to experience heavy travel for games, keeping them away from school for several days. So how does a student athlete maintain good grades if they don’t have the time to dedicate to academics?

Colleges tend to provide student athletes with various resources to assist with the balance between their sporting careers versus their academic careers. Because only a very small number of collegiate players end up playing a sport professionally, it is essential that they are also prepared for a life outside of sports. Virginia Tech has a resource titled the Student Athlete Academic Support Services (SASS). These services provide student athletes with tutors, studying assistance, and academic skill development programs (1). Each sports team is assigned a single academic counselor that can work with them both as a whole and to meet individual needs (1).

There is however a debate as to whether colleges help student athletes too much. I vividly remember choosing to sit next to one of my friends in an undergraduate math class. We were told that where we sat the first day would be where we would remain sitting for the duration of the class. This friend happened to be a soccer player for the school. Let’s just say I got to sit next to her about three times the entire semester and instead got to sit next to her note-taker each week.


An example of academic assistance gone very wrong is the University of North Carolina (UNC) athletics scandal. Being a North Carolina native, I was in a UNC system college when this event unraveled. For almost two decades, student athletes were encouraged to take classes that did not meet in person and only required one assignment (2). Students were given a good grade despite how they actually performed on the assignment (2). Today it is estimated that this scandal has cost the university about 18 million dollars in legal costs (2).



What is your opinion on how student athletes are prepared academically?






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5 Replies to “Student Athletes: Set up for Failure or Success?”

  1. I have seen an interesting divide in the athletes I’ve taught. There have been a few that definitely put a bad taste in my mouth and made it clear that they expected me to give them a pass on everything because they played for the school (usually football or basketball). Other athletes, though, seem to work just as hard as everyone else, staying on top of their assignments when they have to leave town and showing up for the majority of class periods. Also, I should add that at least one of the athletes who blew off my class got in trouble with the coach as a result of my filling out an academic progress report to reflect his difficulties. At least at VT, then, they seem to be trying to send the message that student athletes can’t just slack off and expect to get by.

    1. Thanks for sharing Amanda! It is interesting to know that some sports team have given you more difficulties than others. Like we have talked about many times in class, universities (or at least the people that attend them) sometimes tend to put college sports on a pedestal. I, like many others, love college sports, however we must ensure that the “student” part of student athlete is being acknowledged. On the other hand, I can’t imagine being both a college student and a collegiate athlete. I think there is a happy medium somewhere.

  2. It is an extremely tricky subject, and to be honest, a bit of a weird situation. I understand the original idea of encouraging students to be athletic, but running semi-pro teams under the university’s name is strange. And this is coming from a VT football fanatic.

    There are many who argue that the academic training these kids get is insufficient, but it may surprise you to hear the opposite is also claimed. In soccer related media, it is often said that the NCAA system is too restrictive and greatly limits American soccer talent. In other nations, excellent soccer players play in development leagues before moving up in division to the top professional teams. There is no clear age limit as there is for the NFL (20 years old) or NBA (one and done).

    That said, we’ll never get rid of college football and basketball, there is too much money involved. Perhaps we could have the universities sponsor teams, and treat the players as employees rather than students. They could offer free coursework to those interested (consider it a job benefit), but not require it for those who really couldn’t care less about education. But this opens the whole can of worms of paying players, and in fairness it will increase the gap between mid-major teams and sports powers like Ohio State and Alabama.

  3. One more thing to add: There is another problem with the academic training – it’s not just that they have less time, very often the student-athletes are, academically speaking, far behind the rest of their peers.

    The SAT is not a great test of academic strength, but it does shed some light on this situation. The average SAT score for a football player at a DI school is 220 points lower than that of the general student body, the men’s basketball players are almost 230 points behind. This is more than a standard deviation (200). In is even worse at the most elite colleges. Georgia Tech had the highest average SAT in the nation at one point (almost 1350), while their football players averaged 1028. UVA’s average is 1330, for football players it was 990. The University of Florida’s players were 346 points behind the average (1265 versus 919) – in terms of percentiles that’s 88th percentile versus 33rd. The difference between non-revenue athletes (anything besides football and men’s basketball) and the rest of the student body falls to about 100 points on average, but there is still a significant difference.

    Is this fair? For anyone? On the one hand, the schools are giving these student-athletes a chance to matriculate to a university that in most cases is academically out of their league*. That’s great, if they can get through the program, but it is not entirely fair to the non-athlete applicants. On the other hand, they’re plunging these athletes into a program that may be beyond their ability, and then demanding they maintain a certain grade-point average, all so they can have a football team worthy of national ESPN broadcasts. Is it really fair to sit a kid in the bottom 1/3rd of college students and ask them to keep up with people in the top 15%, and also practice 20 hours a week, and travel, and then threaten them that if they can’t keep up, they’ll be prohibited from playing? But oh yeah, if you do pass, you can have a degree from a fantastic institution to fall back on in case your pro career doesn’t pan out… In some ways, it seems like a great gift, in other ways, it is another kind of abusive.

    Should they give tutoring to these kids, should they hold them to the same admissions standards, should they even have semi-professional athletic teams embedded within universities!?! I honestly don’t know… it’s a strange predicament.
    * Certainly there are some students who are great at both athletics and academics; John Urschel is an NFL player for the Ravens who is concurrently pursuing a PhD in mathematics from MIT. But this is not the norm at DI schools.

    1. You bring up a lot of good points. I honestly don’t know how I feel about student athletes getting paid. On one hand, they sure do a lot of work on behalf of the university. In fact, they are often the face of the university. I also believe that student athletes receive a lot of benefits already for just being a part of a collegiate sport. I can’t think of anything comparable except for graduate teaching/research assistants, but in the case of college athletes, we’re talking about undergraduates. I do agree with you on having standards with admissions. It is an ongoing problem. Students that are not qualified to attend a university are accepted due to their athletic abilities. However, some individuals that are not as academically gifted may see their athletic qualities as being what will eventually make them successful. Indeed this is a tricky subject.

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