How Do Athletic Departments Allow Sports and Academics to Mix at America’s Top Schools?

December 18th, 2017 | by Francis Giknis
How Do Athletic Departments Allow Sports and Academics to Mix at America’s Top Schools?


The status of athletics at the university level today is fraught with complex issues. Questions of player payment, “paper classes” that subvert the “student” moniker, and diversity involving Title IX compliance all wrack the brains of administrators, athletic and academic alike. For some schools, the very nature of their academic mission seems to stand contrary to the “win-or-else” dogma of athletic excellence as it is now defined.

Recruiting the athletes needed to be highly successful oftentimes leads to academic compromises. This is often no fault of the student-athlete—there are only so many hours in the day and frequently academics are sacrificed. However, some schools maintain both academic rigor and athletic success through some deliberate practices.

Student Body Buy-In

A complaint some student-athletes have about their place in academically-elite universities involves feelings of inclusiveness and community involvement. According to a recent article by Glynn Hill of the Houston Chronicle, student-athletes “privately acknowledge a culture of dismissiveness toward athletes” at Rice University. The sentiment that athletes are unappreciated or even scorned at a university can be insidious, undermining motivation among teams and affecting recruiting of incoming student-athletes. Ensuring student-athletes are held accountable to similar classroom standards as their peers can lessen resentment or concerns about favorable treatment.

Managing Practice Times with Class Schedules

For academics and athletics to coexist on campus, there must be compromise. Ensuring that practice and game times do not conflict with general education requirement courses that all students must take is a two-way street between professors and athletic administrators. While syncing all schedules is a challenge, the alternative of forcing student-athletes to choose between class or team is untenable for a university that wants to be elite at both.

Hiring Smartly

If you’re a smaller, private college or university that prides itself on a strong academic reputation, hiring a like-minded individual who views that identity as a strength and not a liability is essential. Perhaps easier said than done, finding a coach whose vision is aligned with the academic administration of the school and who respects the university’s mission is priority over a win-at-all-costs viewpoint or background. Furthermore, it is essential to find leadership who understands how to recruit not with headlines and shining facilities but with school strengths like intellectual promise and career preparedness.

Focus on Fewer Sports

In a recent article for The Atlantic, author Jonathan Cole pointed out that Alabama only lists 15 sports on its athletics website, while Harvard boasts 40. For academically elite universities struggling athletically, perhaps scaling-back sports offerings could be a solution. This would allow for greater focus on what is available, a smaller budget, and fewer challenges finding student-athletes who make the grade both on the field and in the classroom.

Being an academically rigorous university makes fielding successful athletic teams more difficult. Smaller student populations, higher admission standards, and time-consuming academics seem to run counter to team achievement. However, by hiring smartly, focusing on particular athletics, and engaging student-athletes as part of the general school community and not a privileged subset, some schools can be elite in multiple forums.

About Francis Giknis
Francis Giknis joins College AD as a contributor after seven years of teaching and coaching throughout the east coast. Prior to writing for College AD, Francis earned an English degree from the College of William and Mary and his masters at Columbia University. Raised in a cable television-free household, he remembers binge-watching ESPN while on vacations away from home, much to the chagrin of his parents.

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