For the last eighteen years I have been working alongside collegiate student-athletes and for many of those years I have heard that designation, “student-athlete,” being disparaged as an oxymoron. National sports media, in particular, daily speak cynically of the nature of college athletes and their scholastic discipline as being at best a total joke and at worst a cruel hoax. I have a few thoughts about their opinions and the nature of collegiate athletics and scholarship.
First, to make a blanket statement about student-athletes as if they were all the same is ludicrous. The national media tend to look at the most high profile and extreme cases and then extrapolate their situations to every student-athlete at every level of sport. This is foolish at best. The gap between the academic requirements of institutions like Duke and Stanford and many other universities, even in their own conferences, is quite broad. The NCAA sets minimum standards for eligibility for scholarships and each college sets its own requirements for admission to the school. Each requirement is meant to help ensure the student-athlete’s chances for academic success. The standards are different, but still stringent for Divisions II and III as well as NAIA institutions. The common expression by such media is that the student-athletes don’t attend class, cheat on exams, have coaches and others who enable them by doing their work or otherwise abuse the system as their gateways to professional sport.
Second, at our university and I would presume at most, the student-athletes’ cumulative grade point average and graduation rate far surpasses that of the general population of students. The caricature of the student-athlete as a lazy, stupid, class-skipping slacker simply doesn’t reflect the truth. To be sure, there are some who see collegiate sport simply as a path to their dream of professional sport. They either adjust to the rigors of the academic requirements or they find themselves out the door, as one head coach likes to say, “With an apple and a road map.”
Third, in my eighteen years of experience, I have been privileged to know a large number of conference All-Academic Team members, Academic All-Americans, 4.0 g.p.a. student-athletes, and several players who completed undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in their five years of collegiate sport. As their sport chaplain, character coach or mentor, it has been my joy to encourage their learning, to challenge their commitment and to fuel their drive for knowledge and wisdom. It has further been an enduring pleasure to witness the growth of many players’ lives in Christ, to counsel couples approaching marriage, to perform their weddings and to hold their newborn babies.
When someone cynically says, “Student-athlete. Really?” I reply with an emphatic, “Yes!”