These Three Things Are Essential To Making Great Students Out Of Your Student-Athletes

May 17th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
These Three Things Are Essential To Making Great Students Out Of Your Student-Athletes


The importance of internships for college students cannot be overstated.  In a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Marketplace, employers indicated that they want new graduates to have real-world experience, and internships and work during college matter far more than college reputation when evaluating applicants.  Unfortunately, many NCAA student-athletes struggle to acquire the sort of experience that employers value due to busy competition, practice, travel and class schedules, which can put athletes behind their non-athlete classmates upon graduation.  In 2016, the NCAA reported, “Relatively high percentages of student-athletes in some Division I sports (e.g., 30 percent in FBS football) said they would like to do an internship but cannot because of their athletics commitments.”

In January, the NCAA Division I Council approved new legislation that aims at making it easier for student-athletes to perform internships.  The new rule will extend the time student-athletes have to complete four years of eligibility if they pursue an internship during the regular school year.  Time spent in an internship will not count against the five years that student-athletes generally have to complete four years of eligibility.

I applaud the Division I Council for adopting this new eligibility rule in an effort to help student-athletes balance their desire to compete in a sport with their need to prepare for a future after sport.  As a faculty member who prepares students for an industry (sports management) where they will be virtually unemployable without internships or other evidence of experiential learning on their résumés, I am particularly interested in this issue.  Below are three things that administrators and coaches should consider as college athletics looks to improve its record of supporting student-athlete professional development.

1) Student-athlete internship placement and financial support


More athletics departments are adding programs intended to help student-athletes attain and successfully complete internships.  Vanderbilt University is a leader in this area.  The Vanderbilt athletics department collects information on student-athlete interests to determine what kind of experiences they need and hosts a career fair for area businesses where student-athletes can interview for positions and network with potential employers.  The athletics department partners with the campus career center to hold weekly career development workshops, and student-athletes who do summer internships conclude their experiences with a capstone presentation to their peers and university administrators.  To ensure that finances do not prevent a student-athlete from performing an unpaid or low-paying internship, the athletics department applied for and received a waiver from the NCAA so the school can provide housing and meals to student-athletes who stay on campus for summer internships.  Vanderbilt’s program has been in place for two summers and has helped 131 student-athletes from a variety of sports gain valuable career experience during that time.

While many schools are adding bits and pieces of the Vanderbilt program to their student-athlete life skills offerings, more schools need to set aside the resources or raise the money needed to emulate the full Vanderbilt model and possibly enhance it.  I would love to see the day where investment in life skills programs becomes the new “arms race” in college sports.

2) Support from coaches

The resources to support student-athlete internships and experiential learning will not make much of a difference if student-athletes feel pressured to avoid taking time off from their sport.  According to the NCAA, two-thirds of Division I and II student-athletes said they spend as much or more time on athletics during the off-season as during the competitive season, and 75 percent or more in baseball, football, and track and field reported spending as much time on their sport in the off-season as they do in-season.

While NCAA rules require summer workouts to be voluntary, with notable exceptions in football and basketball, the college athletics community is well aware that there is pressure within many teams to stay on campus and train with teammates and conditioning coaches during the summers.  In a survey conducted by the Pac-12 Conference, about 73 percent of student-athletes said they felt voluntary activities were actually mandatory.  More than 60 percent of Pac-12 student-athletes said they wanted voluntary activities to become “truly voluntary” so they could have more time for studying, internships and part-time jobs.  As Rachel Scott, then a softball student-athlete at the University of Texas at Austin, reported during a 2015 Big 12 Conference forum, much of the extra work she did during the off-season was voluntary, but it did not feel that way.  “It’s not mandatory,” Scott said. “But it’s expected.”

Athletics administrators must ensure that their coaches maintain a culture that supports total student-athlete development.  Use exit interviews to help evaluate whether student-athletes believe they have the freedom to pursue summer internships and intervene if that is not the case.  Establish programs like the one at Vanderbilt and recruit student-athletes to participate – send the message that the department values and supports the development of student-athletes off the field at times when their coaches might prefer that they work on sports skills and conditioning.  Set clear and unequivocal standards for coach conduct, and establish a direct path to a sports administrator that student-athletes can report to if they feel their coaches are not allowing them to take full advantage of internships and other opportunities during the off-season.  Administrators should not assume that coaches treat summer workouts as optional just because the coaching staff received compliance education.  During my time as an NCAA investigator, I encountered many student-athletes fed up with coaches that found ways to make summer workouts seem mandatory.

The Ivy League is ahead of the curve in this area with summer workout rules that are more restrictive than the NCAA’s in basketball and football.  Courtney Banghart, Princeton head women’s basketball coach, is an example of a coach who has bought into total student-athlete development.  When asked about NCAA rules that loosened four years ago to give women’s basketball coaches the ability to schedule mandatory summer workouts for student-athletes enrolled in summer school, Banghart stated, “The summer access (to players) would put undo pressure on (them) to stay local when they can be doing a million different internships.  I think (the conference restrictions on summer workouts) helps us since most of our kids aren’t going to be playing basketball when they are done.”

3) Find and create opportunities within the department and elsewhere on campus for student-athletes to gain experience

Many opportunities for experiential learning may already exist on campus.  For example, the University of Iowa Sport and Recreation Management program that I direct offers several practicum courses that work with sports organizations to give students internship-quality experiences in sports marketing, communications, event management, sales, and other areas.  Some of our practicums take place during intense, three-week periods during the summer, which fits well with the schedules of some student-athletes.  Like most internships, students must apply for acceptance into the practicums with a résumé, cover letter, and interview.

Athletics administrators should search for existing programs on their campuses where students can develop experiences and portfolio materials that rival an internship, similar to ours at Iowa, and encourage student-athletes to pursue those opportunities.  If such programs do not already exist, administrators should consider whether there might be any potential for collaboration with academic programs and other departments on campus to create new experiential learning opportunities.  For example, a summer legal internship program with the university general counsel’s office could give students interested in attending law school exposure to the legal profession.

Athletics administrators should also consider the possibilities that exist within the athletics department.  Student-athletes interested in sports management will naturally think of the athletics department as a place to gain experience, but there could also be potential opportunities in the department for other student-athletes.  Student-athletes studying finance or accounting could learn practical skills in the athletics business operations office, student-athletes interested in medical or physical therapy school could perform internships with the sports medicine staff, and student-athletes who want to become journalists could work with the athletics communications staff.  There are many possibilities that life skills directors could set up and coordinate within the athletics department that might offer more flexibility to fit student-athlete schedules than a typical internship.

As internships become a more significant part of a college education and student-athletes continue to juggle extraordinarily busy schedules, athletics departments have a responsibility to invest time, energy and resources into giving student-athletes the experiences they need to succeed after graduation.  


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

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