Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:03:42 PM CST

Top Stories

Lindsey Holden/MEDILL

Former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter speaks to the media after testifying at a National Labor Relations Board unionization hearing in February. Colter is representative of a collection of college athletes who says the student-athlete role is exploitative and leaves them powerless at the hands of their schools and the NCAA.

For student-athletes, ‘striking a balance’ between sports and academics often a struggle

by Lindsey Holden
Mar 19, 2014

Even as intercollegiate sports become increasingly commercialized, NCAA student-athletes continue to face the balancing act that defines athletics at the college level.

“Your life changes when you arrive in college and you’re a Division I athlete,” said Drew Moulton, a former wide receiver for Northwestern University’s football team, who graduated in 2013. “Coming in as a freshman, you’re doing more football stuff than you’ve ever done in your life, and then going to a school like Northwestern, you’re doing more academic stuff than you ever have in your life.”

As the NCAA and college athletics face challenges to their code of amateurism and allegations of athlete exploitation, former athletes, like Moulton, recount their experiences as student-athletes and how they handled their roles.

These allegations have recently reached a boiling point in the form of two cases. A group of Northwestern football players in January began making a case that they should be allowed to unionize and have more say over university policies related to athletics. Adding fuel to the fire of the pending labor case is an anti-trust lawsuit that sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed on Monday, which claims the NCAA uses scholarships to unfairly cap Division I men’s basketball players’ and top football players’ earnings.

At the heart of these suits is the student-athlete role, and whether it’s possible to be both a competitive athlete and a responsible student. Ultimately, many student-athletes choose to focus on the studies that will benefit their post-athletic careers.

“It was often a struggle,” said Joe Hart of striking a balance between his experiences as both a student and a goalie for DePaul University’s men’s soccer team.

“When class conflicts came up, we always went with ‘if it was practice, then you miss practice for class, and if it was a game, then you miss class for a game.’ So I missed half of a lot of practices here and there because my schedule was pretty not soccer friendly,” said Hart, who graduated in 2013.

Now a physics doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, Hart chose to graduate a year early and forgo his last season of soccer eligibility in order to begin his Ph.D. program.

“I realized my future was in academics and not in soccer,” Hart said. “[Graduate school] is definitely advantaging my career further than playing another year of soccer would have done.”

In spite of ultimately choosing physics over soccer, Hart said being a student and an athlete is feasible.

“It’s mostly just finding a way to make everything work and working hard enough,” Hart said. “If you work hard enough, you can usually find a way.”

Moulton called juggling college classes and football “what I signed up for.”

“There’s a time commitment, and that’s just the way it is and there’s no way around it,” Moulton said.

Marcos Gilmore, who provides academic support for Division III NCAA athletes as dean of Student Success at Greenville College in southern Illinois, said college athletes are able to find success in sports and academics, but only by carefully tailoring their lives to fit their hectic schedules.

“Some [student-athletes] from the very beginning or early on figure out ‘if I’m going to be successful in both areas, then I have to change the way I approach life’ in terms of time management,” Gilmore said.

Some college athletes don’t find the hectic student-athlete experience to be a worthwhile venture, and choose to give up their athletic pursuits in favor of more balanced lifestyles.

Ben Hiromura, a current DePaul student and former distance runner on the university’s track and field and cross country teams, decided to end his athletic career early, due in part to the rigorous demands of his schedule.

“During my time as a student-athlete, I found that my life was dominated by two things in particular: working out and planning,” Hiromura said via email.

“In the end, I felt as though I was no longer interested in the ‘tougher’ side of collegiate athletics. I no longer found the weekend-long track meets worth the ‘all-nighters’ on Sunday night to finish papers,” said Hiromura, who is majoring in elementary education.

The kind of commitment required to manage such demanding schedules, along with the growing importance of college athletics, has caused some universities to resort to unsavory tactics to ensure their athletes remain academically eligible for competition.

In 2011, the University of North Carolina was found to have created a “Blacks in North Carolina” class specifically for football players, complete with grades that were awarded for work the athletes did not do.
Florida State University faced a similar scandal in 2007, when it was revealed that the university had engaged in academic fraud, with some academic advisers providing student-athletes with improper help such as typing portions of papers and providing answers to online quizzes.

According to Gilmore, this kind of misconduct occurs because people doubt athletes can handle balancing their athletic and academic commitments.

“Maybe the assumption is, of some, that ‘they can’t do it, so we’re going to create a way,’” Gilmore said. “As a coach or as an administrator, it’s their mindset to say ‘we see these as mutually exclusive, so the only way we can make it happen is to create these special courses.’”

In spite of such scandals, and the constant struggle to reconcile being a college student with being a college athlete, there isn’t a consensus as to whether one role eclipses the other.

Hart doesn’t see college athletics as a job, but rather considers sports similar to other co-curricular activities.

“Pre-med students, if they want to get into med school, they have to volunteer for 20 hours a week at a hospital. I played soccer for 20 hours a week,” Hart said.

On the other hand, Moulton, who now lives in Detroit and works as an area sales manager for Chrysler, views the comparison between college athletics and employment as valid.

“I have a full-time job right now, and it reminds me of being a student-athlete,” Moulton said. “I’m part of a team, we have a common goal to get No. 1, and it literally reminds me of everything I did the past four years.”