Playing school: NCAA athletes struggle to balance pressures

“Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS,” Cardale Jones, former third-string Ohio State quarterback, tweeted in 2012.

Jones is not alone in his belief, and the NCAA has faced criticism for years over a lack of emphasis on athletes’ academics and its claiming that “managing missed class time is part of the game.”

NCAA guidelines restrict in-season practice to 20 hours per week, but many athletes surpass that limit through activities like conditioning, film, visits to athletic trainers and game travel time, all of which are not factored into NCAA guidelines.

The breakdown permits up to four hours of practice per day and 20 hours per week with one day off during season play. During the off-season, regulations limit practice to eight hours per week with two days off.  

A CBS study conducted in 2015 found that student athletes are often “too exhausted to study effectively.” After sampling 409 Pac-12 Conference athletes, the study found that the time demanded of them as student-athletes created “anxiety and a loss of sleep that hinders academic and athletic performance.”

Mental and physical exhaustion results in athletic and academic programs taking action to ensure incoming players understand that they are students before they are athletes.

“You’ve got to get guys that are capable students … they gotta be able to get into the school,” head football coach Willie Fritz said in a previous interview with The Hullabaloo. “I’m sure there [are] transfers out there that you’d like to have, but they can’t get into Tulane.”

With academic requirements of a minimum of 12 credit hours for all students, the NCAA states that student-athletes must earn at least a 2.3 GPA to remain eligible to play.

At Tulane, students must notify professors of planned absences and arrange to complete any missed work. To keep track of the athletic absences, players are required to present professors with an absence form provided by the athletics office. The acceptance of this form, however, is up to the discretion of the professor.

While many schools value the academic performance of students, others value athletic ability to a higher degree despite the 2003 NCAA Academic Progress Rate program, which seeks to hold institutions accountable for each student-athlete’s academic progress through team-based metric accounts. This program, however, has led players to take easier classes so that they can remain eligible.

“There is definitely far more pressure on the revenue sports than there is on, say, fencing,” Duke Senior Deputy Director of Athletics Chris Kennedy said. 

Schools like North Carolina at Chapel Hill were charged with “abject failure to safeguard and provide a meaningful education to scholarship athletes who agreed to attend UNC.”

The investigation began in 2010 after a football player tweeted about potential illegal benefits. Upon examination, the NCAA discovered academic fraud in the former Department of African and African-American Studies. The scandal broke in 2014 after two former UNC students sued the school for depriving athletes of a “meaningful education” and confirmed nearly two-decades worth of “no-show” classes allowing athletes to remain eligible with inflated grades.

“If these young men and women are going to come in and put in 30, 40, 50 hours, the least we can give them is a set of circumstances academically that really allows them to benefit educationally from what they have put into the athletics context,” Robert Orr, one of the lawyers representing the UNC students filing the lawsuit, said in an interview with Business Insider.

UNC was not alone in this scandal: Twenty other universities were investigated by the NCAA on counts of academic fraud.

Aiming to avoid charges of academic misconduct and give athletes an adequate education, many colleges and universities pay class checkers, people who make sure athletes show up at their scheduled classes. Critics claim this further drives a wedge between players and the rest of the student body.

Wichita State, the newest school in the American Athletic Conference, recently adopted an attendance policy which states that athletes are required to attend all classes regardless of a professor’s individual absence policy. If athletes miss three classes, they are fined $25 and cannot practice until the fine is paid. After the fifth absence, the player is suspended.

At Tulane, “there is no athletics department-wide policy,” according to Associate Athletic Director for Strategic Communications Scottie Rodgers. “Excused [and] unexcused absence policies vary depending on the professors, classes [or] schools.”

Despite no formal policy for classroom attendance, Tulane has student-athlete check-ins during class, and the athletic center provides academic advisors and tutoring to athletes.

“Baseball got me here, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into school without it,” redshirt sophomore pitcher Brandon Issa said in a previous interview with The Hullabaloo. “It’s nice that it got me this far, and I appreciate all the coaches and staff and even the facility to play in this every day. It’s a dream.”

While athletics may provide athletes with the means of getting accepted, athletes are required to maintain athletic eligibility.

“[Admissions] decides who gets into school here, not the head football coach,” Fritz said in a previous interview with The Hullabaloo.

Student-athletes put substantial time into their respective sports, and the NCAA stands by that same level of dedication being applied to school and putting an end to academic fraud.

“It affects the integrity of the game,” NCAA Associate Director for Enforcement Katherine Sulentic said. “But more importantly, it affects the student-athlete’s education. It affects the quality of their degree.”

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