In Defense of Student-Athletes

April 19th, 2017 | by CollegeAD
In Defense of Student-Athletes


I recently published a blog post on my position that NCAA amateurism rules should be relaxed to allow student-athletes to earn off-the-field income that is based on athletics reputation.  A reader commented, “Why call them student-athletes then?  Is education even required?”  The reader went on to state that he has not been comfortable with the term “student-athlete” ever since tutoring some athletes who, in his opinion, did not belong in college because they lacked the requisite skills and did not take school seriously.  These comments got me thinking about the growing cynicism of many media members and others toward the term student-athlete.  Regardless of your opinion on whether student-athletes are university employees, and in spite of high-profile academic fraud cases like the one at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the term student-athlete perfectly defines the overwhelming majority of young people who play sports at NCAA institutions.

Let’s begin by throwing out all of the unfair generalizations made about student-athletes based on small sample size.  The reader I mentioned above who was critical of the term student-athlete also cited Lonzo Ball, UCLA men’s basketball student-athlete, and others like him who enter the NBA draft after one year of college as examples of athletes who, in his opinion, are not sufficiently interested in school to be considered student-athletes.  This is a common argument made by those who are skeptical of the academic dedication of college athletes – star athletes go through the motions in school so they can audition for a pro career.  

A few players leaving school early to pursue pro careers do not represent the typical student-athlete experience.  In 2016, 59 underclassmen, only 17 of which were freshmen, declared early for the NBA draft, which was higher than the average of 42.1 underclassmen per year.  Meanwhile, there were more than 18,500 NCAA men’s basketball student-athletes during the 2015-16 season (5,472 at the Division I level).  Similarly, a record 107 underclassmen declared early for the 2016 NFL draft, but there were more than 73,500 NCAA football student-athletes during the 2015-16 academic year (28,380 at the Division I level).  It is absurd to make broad assumptions about the academic motivation of more than 92,000 football and basketball student-athletes based on a combined total of 150-175 who try to turn pro in a typical year.

Moreover, when considering the federal graduation rates, the student-athlete population graduates at the same rate overall as the general student population, and African-American male and female student-athletes graduate at higher rates than their non-athlete peers.

Beyond the data, I have mountains of anecdotal evidence from years of teaching to support the conclusion that student-athletes overall are in search of the same educational experience as their non-athlete peers.  I have taught hundreds of undergraduate students over the years, including plenty of student-athletes in almost every class.  Anecdotally, I can tell you that student-athletes are the same as their non-athlete peers.  There are high, average, and low-performing student-athletes, just as there is a range of performance and motivation among non-athlete students.  I have taught plenty of classes where student-athletes sat in the front row, asked the most questions, and got the highest grades.  Additional examples of student-athlete effort and achievement can be found in the master’s degree program that I lead, which regularly accepts student-athletes who completed an undergraduate program and wish to begin graduate studies while competing in a final year of athletics eligibility.  In recent years, Iowa had two student-athletes who completed the first year of law school while still competing.  For every example a naysayer can find of what they consider to be a “dumb jock,” I can cite several more examples of student-athletes I personally know who are exceptionally dedicated to balancing the demands of academic and athletic achievement.

Finally, athletics should be considered as important to student development as any extracurricular activity, internship, or part-time job that round out higher education for non-athlete students.  Just as students develop practical experience and leadership, communication, and time management skills while working on the school newspaper or radio station staff, serving as president of philanthropic or service organizations, or participating in school plays or musical performances, athletes develop the same valuable life skills and education through participation in sports.  As outlined in a “Fast Company” article, there are several reasons why former college athletes make some of the best employees a company can hire, such as resiliency, communication skills, and a team focus that are instilled in most athletes during their college experience.

For example, the University of Iowa student-athlete academic services staff backs up its stated commitment to developing responsible, productive, and well educated individuals with a variety of programs and experiences, such as a career coaching series, a forum on race relations with a visiting scholar, graduate school information receptions, and a tour of a local African American History Museum.  Similar programming occurs at schools across the country.  The NCAA national office also supports a variety of programs and scholarships for student-athlete development, such as the annual NCAA student-athlete leadership forum and the NCAA postgraduate scholarship program.  Clearly, athletics and education go hand in hand in college sports.

Recently, NCAA schools and conferences recognized the potential for improvement in the student-athlete experience and passed rules that lessen sport time demands.  Establishing guidelines that help balance the requirements of being both a student and an athlete are a priority that the NCAA constantly seeks to enhance.  

Of course, there will always be examples of student-athletes who ignore their academics, individuals who engage in academic fraud to help athletes stay eligible, and athletes admitted to school based on athletic potential rather than academic performance, but those situations do not represent the majority of NCAA student-athletes and athletics departments.  Moreover, the same things go on with non-athletes but do not receive the same level of scrutiny as when they involve athletes.  For example, there are students who dedicate the majority of their time and energy to writing for a school newspaper and barely maintain their academic eligibility, academic fraud schemes involving non-athlete students, and students in programs such as drama and music whose performance skills made up for shortcomings in GPA and test scores.  

The student-athlete model is alive and well on college campuses, and the term student-athlete remains the best representation of what playing college sports is all about.


About Dan MathesonDan

Dan Matheson, J.D., is director of the University of Iowa Sport & Recreation Management program. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty, Matheson was an associate director of enforcement for the NCAA and the baseball operations director for the New York Yankees. He currently serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors at Iowa.

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