When I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living, one of the first questions I tend to get asked is what it's like to have college athletes in class. This is apparently the higher education equivalent of asking a cop, "Have you ever shot anybody?" and I enjoy answering it approximately as much. Are the athletes dumb? Do they come to class? Ever have any Famous ones? Here's my experience.

In general, student-athletes (the NCAA has cloyingly rebranded them "scholar-athletes") get a really bad rap. Most people don't understand how many hours per day their sport takes up. You don't have to feel sorry for them – in many cases they're getting a free education out of the deal – but their non-athlete peers are not getting up at 5 AM to work out for 3 hours before going to class and then practicing for 5 more after class. Compared to the average college kid who rolls out of bed at 11 AM with great difficulty, that's a heroic display of discipline.

And athletes come to class. They come to every class. Again comparing them to regular students, they are far better in this area. Most NCAA schools give them plenty of tutoring and academic help so it's fairly difficult to fail (and lose academic eligibility to play sports) as long as they show up. So most athletic departments have a near-zero tolerance policy for absences. We are asked to fill out progress reports for athletes constantly. Have they missed class? What are their grades? And so on. College students tend to skip class at the drop of a hat, of course. Students who attend every class stand out. Sure, sometimes they're half-asleep in class (see above). I promise you there is nothing unusual about sleeping undergrads.

So. Are they as dumb as everyone assumes?

Not really. At my current institution, the two best students I've had so far are athletes. Certainly not every student-athlete is brilliant. Some of them are the proverbial bag of hammers. Most of them are average. In other words, they're no different than any other group of undergraduates; they range from brilliant to how-did-you-graduate-high-school with most falling in the middle. It's a normal distribution, as far as I can tell. And unlike most students I don't have to ask them a half-dozen times to do the assigned work. Even the ones who are not very good at academic work try really hard in most cases, which is refreshing. These are competitive kids who don't like to lose. Compared to the general population their effort levels are off the charts.

Now, I'm not naive. I am certain that there are sports-crazy schools where athletes are given extensive leeway and strings are pulled to keep them eligible. It's equally certain that there are individuals, usually of the Superstar Athlete variety, who get every manner of special treatment imaginable and rarely appear in a classroom. That's a small group, though. The vast majority of NCAA athletes are anonymous and play sports in which "going pro" is not even a realistic option. For every famous Reggie Bush or Kevin Durant there are a thousand people on a tennis or track scholarship who you wouldn't recognize if you tripped over them.

The best part, in my experience, is that most Scholar-Athletes get it. They know they're not in line to make millions in the pros. Even at the giant SEC Football School I worked at, the football players I encountered knew exactly what odds they had of making the NFL. Or even the CFL. Or even Arena Football. They broadly understand, as the cheesy-ass NCAA slogan says, that they are going to go pro in something other than sports. So surprisingly few have that "Fuck it, I don't need this" attitude about classes and the work required to pass them.

In short, people who expect college athletes to be dumb and lazy should probably take an honest look at their own (or their own kids') performance as students. If athletes are dumb, they're no dumber than the other students. If they're lazy or they act entitled, it's because all students are pretty lazy and entitled these days. I just don't see any way in which student-athletes, even if they are bad students, are any worse than students in general. And in a number of ways they are clearly better – they show up and do what they're asked to do. Believe it or not, that's becoming an increasingly rare commodity these days. Let's put it this way: if I could get a class full of football players or a regular class I'd take the former. It would certainly be no worse and would most likely be better.

38 thoughts on “THE MODAL STUDENT”

  • This was…refreshing to read. It almost restored my faith in some sort of normalcy in the world.

    I'm disappointed. Knock that shit off and serve up some fresh despair and outrage already.

    Just kidding. Thanks for this, seriously.

  • I was merely a graduate instructor/TA, but this jibes with my experience as well. Some of my best and most motivated students were athletes of the non-football, non-basketball variety. Those second- and third-tier sports had a helluva a lot of hard-working students who just seemed glad to be on a full scholarship for volleyball or golf or, to my surprise I admit, cheer-leading.

    So yeah, it's a stupid stereotype to say college athletes are all numbskulls. Do they get special treatment? Well, as Ed points out, yes — if they don't show up for 5 A.M. lifting they get punished. If they don't make it to a mandatory study hall, they get punished.

    Jesus, there's no way I could have made it through college with that kind of discipline. And they probably get drug tested as well. Drug tested! Double-plus no-good!

    Then again, the NCAA and elite football schools do themselves no favors in trying to give kids who obviously don't belong fourth and fifth chances when it's clear that they'd be served better by a community college. (Nothing wrong with community colleges!)

  • When I was a undergrad doing senior design courses I had a couple of hockey players in my group. Other than being unavailable Friday-Sunday they were fucking Johnny on the Spot without exception.

  • Could the stereotype be derived from the days when universities really didn't give two farts about what happened to the kid after grad? I remember back in the late 80s the start of the bad press regarding kids who were only names on a role sheet. It was about this time that they started tightening up on academics.

  • middle seaman says:

    Try not to be that positive next time, please.

    The assumption that an athlete cannot be intelligent is widely made. In general, if you are good at A, you know $hit about B is almost axiomatic in society. Examples: Athletes are dumb, engineers never read and know nothing (liberal arts view), mathematician have no emotions, lawyers cheat, docs are arrogant, etc.

    Obama's 1st chief of staff was a former ballet dancer. A football play made the supreme court in some state. I worked with many honest lawyers and know many humble docs. Some mathematicians cry in movies. (Personal knowledge)

  • I have to say my experience with student-athletes has been the same, with the exception of baseball players, who at my university are way more entitled and lazy than they have any right to be.

  • That's a pretty nice testimonial to student-athletes, Ed.

    Probably the best compliment you can pay anybody (regardless of ability) is that they are diligent and don't take their opportunities for granted.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Interesting post, Ed.

    In my first semester as an Adjunct Professor in the English department of a growing private college (which was not known as a hotbed of future sports stars, but had all of the traditional men's and women's sports – the school did send one guy to the NBA, and he was pretty major star, but he was it), I taught an acting course.

    It was the first time an acting course was being offered, and the school had a long tradition of quality theatrical productions, so the students had been clamoring for a class for years.

    I had a large class of about 25, and one of the guys was a star football lineman – a big football fish in an admittedly, very small football pond.

    I explained to the class the metrics upon which they'd be graded, and stressed that there would be some tests, but that attendance was one of the biggest factors in their grade, and effort was the other. And that the final exam would be a monologue of their choosing.
    If they attended and put in the effort, that, and not talent, would get then a decent grade.

    The young football player, a Senior, also had no acting experience – whereas most of the students in the rest of the class had already acted in our college's productions, and were the often the leads in their High School productions.
    Why was he taking this class, I had asked him on the first day? After graduating, he said he was going on for his MBA, and, since the college no longer taught public speaking, he thought my acting class would get him more acclimated to being up in front of a group of people.

    So I didn't expect much out of him, but, as I said, if he attended, and took the tests and did fairly well, and participated in the exercises and memorized his monologue, I was prepared to give him a good grade.

    Most of the students being theatre junkies, attendance wasn't an issue. And the football player never missed a class.
    And he did well on the tests, and participated in the exercises, along with the much more experienced students.
    As Ed said, he worked hard.

    And to their credit, throughout the semester, the more theatre-savvy students helped him, because he really didn't have anywhere near the experience of the others.

    Then came the monologue – "The Final."
    He chose one from a collection of 'as-told-to' soldiers stories from the Vietnam War.

    I wasn't expecting much.
    I just hoped he's memorized the monologue so I could give him an "A," which he'd deserved – not on talent so much, but on effort and hard work.
    After all, this was a class, NOT an audition.

    Well, dressed in quasi-military khaki pants and shirt, he brought some leaves up on stage with him, and did his monologue about a wounded soldier, comparing the veins in the leaves to the ones leaking blood in his body, hoping that the Medic's would come and save him before too much blood left his body.
    The guy NAILED that monologue!!!!
    NAILED IT!!!!!
    I was bawling watching him, and so was the rest of the class.

    He blew the others out of the water – and remember, he'd never done a memorized monologue in front of other people in his life!

    After everyone was finished, I pulled him aside and I told him that this "acting thing," might be right up his alley, after all.
    And I told him that I wished I could give him higher than an "A," because he richly deserved it.
    He said that, while he really enjoyed the class, he'd stick to learning about business.
    "Wise choice," I told him – since I had learned how tough the theatre, film, and TV, rackets were to crack, for actors.

    Never underestimate anyone.
    Particularly the people who hate to lose, like the people who like to compete in athletics.

  • I started my college education at the branch of my state U that has a football team, and the jocks in my intro classes all fit the stereotype. Not only were they disruptive and downright rude in class, but it wasn't safe to be a woman on campus, particular after dark. It was so obnoxious that I transferred to a smaller branch where sports were not an issue (I was on the gymnastics team but still graduated in four years because the emphasis was on school, not sports) and the campus was much, much safer.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    Highlight reel post Ed!

    To keep the feelgood train rolling, consider Joe Juneau, the other one , a great player from the Quebec backwoods who entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute speaking hardly a word of English.

    Graduated straight A while leading the hockey team to victory; went on to a star NHL career; went into aerospace after hanging up his skates, and now bush pilots throughout the north leading a program to help Inuit kids.

    When he was arguing penalty technicalities with refs and they yelled, "What are you, a rocket scientist?" He could answer Oui.

  • OrwellianDoublespeaker says:

    Having gone back to university (again) at age 36 and found myself stunned at the pathetic level of ability in most of my undergrad student peers, I'm not sure if Ed's article compliments "scholar-athletes." I take it as more of a condemnation of the lousy state of higher education that's caused almost entirely by the attitude of the spoiled student body…except, of course, for the athletes.

  • Doomed, we are says:

    There's some data that college level participation in team sports leads to better outcomes in med school. We have a former pro soccer player among our current residents, and he's quite good. I think the bad rap comes from high profile football and basketball players at big sports universities. I went to one, and never saw any in my science classes ( I understand journalism was a popular choice). I saw prospective players given tour by lovely young ladies though, often dressed to suggest they'd be offering more than tours, which I found fairly upsetting.

  • For all the stereotypes involved, sports does have an essential honesty: you win, lose or, in some, draw. And that's all. Talk, attitude and bluster doesn't change it: enter humility.
    Discipline ain't everything, but absent that…….good luck!
    Most college age athletes have already had years of practice mostly at times of the day when friends are off doing whatever. No surprise it shows up as Ed describes. Sports themselves have also changed, demanding much smarter (aka, teachable) players. The stakes always get higher.
    Cu: great story.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    gulag, terrific.

    In my scholarly work on showbiz trivia, I have been struck at how many actors were serious athletes in college, many with pro potential. They nearly always chose acting because of injuries. Similarly with actresses, it was dancing or figure skating. Rachel McAdams anybody?

  • @well, mostly; is it the sports, or is it just discipline? Check out any college student who also works fulltime, has a family, or any other obligations. You'll find them to be every bit as disciplined as the scholarship soccer player.

  • Great article, seriously. This is why I read G&T.

    However—"the MODAL student" What, are you teaching them about the harmonic advances of Miles Davis?

  • I have a different perspective but the same experience — I was a work-study undergrad so in the summers I did maintenance at my state school. A lot of the other kids doing it were athletes, since they were prohibited from having jobs during the school year they worked on campus in the summer. Some of my (non-athlete) friends and I made fast friends with a football player on our crew, and not only was he one of the nicest guys we'd ever met but it also became apparent that he missed out on a lot of the "college experience" since he was always at practice.
    At the time in the summer my friends and I literally did nothing but get stoned and go to work. At night we drank ourselves silly and then we woke up to repeat the process in the morning. He had never done drugs (NCAA drug testing) rarely drank (try waking up to 5AM practice if you're hungover — it's a lot different then chipping up floor tiles, believe me) and hadn't really socialized with anyone not on the team for most of his college experience. When he hung out with us it was like looking at an incoming freshmen. It stuck with me how much he had sacrificed for that scholarship, and believe me no one on this team harbored delusions of going pro. I've tried not to buy into the lazy stereotypes since then.

  • God bless you, Ed, for saying this. I've been trying to get this point across to people for years. You may not win the argument, but I'm heartened at least to know somebody else gets it.

  • Gerald McGrew says:

    It makes sense when you understand the life of a student-athlete.

    My daughter, at age 10, is a goalkeeper for a top premier soccer team. During the season, she has keeper training 2-3 days a week, team practice 2 days a week, and a game one day a week. Her "day off" is Sunday. That means her routine during the week is to get off the bus, get something to eat, do some homework, go to training/practice, come home and eat dinner, finish homework, and have about an hour before bedtime.

    And she's 10 (and btw, she loves it).

    As Ed notes, like my daughter these athletes are highly competitive and very motivated to achieve. If they're getting scholarships, more than likely they've been living this sort of life since a very young age, so the sense of discipline is ingrained.

    When they get to the NCAA level, you also have to throw in travel for away games. In the west where we live, some trips are 14-hour bus rides.

    It's a crazy life that for the most part, only a select few can handle.

  • Nice article – your experience matches well with mine. I currently teach at a large mid-western community college, but prior to that I taught as a grad instructor at an even larger university while working on my Ph.D. I taught intro level courses and had quite a few Division I athletes (one was a fairly prominent olympic athlete in gymnastics), mostly football players. The majority were average to above average, but I did have several who were quite intelligent/excellent students.

    I remember striking up a conversion with one of my student-athletes one day, and I asked him when he found to time to read/study. He said that he would catch up on his reading/studying when the team went on road trips (mostly by bus) for away games. I remember his telling me that some of his teammates would tease him about reading/studying all time. He said that his schedule was so full (classes, practice, games, weight-room time, film-room, etc.) that he needed that dead-time on the bus to help him do well in his classes. I think he was an academic All-American for a year or two while he was in school. A really disciplined and smart kid.

    I also had another football player that failed one of my classes, largely because he was recovering from an injury and didn't come to class nor complete most of the coursework. He later became academically ineligible. Signed as a free agent out of college and spent a few years in the NFL.

  • In the bad old days, when I was a TA at a big state football school, I actually had a coach come over to tell me to pass some meathead who'd been badly advised and managed to sign up for a basic bio class full of pre-meds. The student couldn't be bothered to drop the class because nobody flunked Mr Football Player, right?

    I had zero interest in football, had never heard of the coach or the student in his football capacity, said it was up to the student's work whether he flunked or not, and was worried for a while that I might have to apply a defibrillator to the coach. (Don't worry. The student had no problems. He got special dispensation from the Dean after he flunked.)

    Non-star athletes were hard workers even then, as Ed describes.

    In the last decade or so, the messages from coaching staff have been concern about making sure students keep up with the work. It's a big change. Plus, they seem to be a lot more careful about placing students in classes they can handle. The athletes I get now are really smart people who plan on being doctors, like the rest of the pre-meds.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    Addendum to my Juneau post, brainbox and NHL star Adam Oates, now coach of the Washington Capitals, is also an RPI grad.

    Oh, those one dimensional engineers.

  • Rob_in_Hawaii says:

    Just an "amen" post. I've been teaching at the college level for 18 years and cannot find a single thing in your post to disagree with, including the last bit about having an entire class of football players.

  • Really lovely piece, but double bonus points for the title, which I saw immediately after my research class. Nice!

  • @ middle seaman Justice Byron White (replaced by RBG) was a WWII vet and NFL player. And certainly no dummy.

  • It is interesting to hear about how much time athletes spend at their sports; I know, I was captain of my college wrestling team. However, you overlook the countless hours that band members put it for their music and I don't think that they get scholarships. And they get almost no recognition. BTW I have no musical talent so I am not blowing my horn.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    Ed's article should be required reading for all homeschooling intellectualhating tea partiers. But that would be coercion, unlike the assignment of Rand books in public schools, and no rational person would condone it.

  • @guttedleafsfan-
    Can't believe you didn't mention Ken Dryden. Lawyer, former Canadian MP, and author of the best sports book I've ever read.

    A number of college hockey players actually go to class- Craig Adams of the Penguins has a degree from Harvard.

  • My son had an outstanding athlete (student) on his dorm floor his freshman year and I think it had an enormous impact on my son as far as going to class and work ethic and being the best you can be and keeping your nose clean.

    Watched him play last night.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    @Khaled, mea culpa. The Game is also my personal classic. Dryden also spent a year back in high school, as a student, to research his book on the education system. I can't say he writes as well as he tended but he comex close.

    And as a "character guy", the ultimate accolade in hockey, check out his dad and his no overhead charity that provides sleeping bag kits for street kids.

  • @spencer neal: you're absolutely correct. Star-quality violinists who play with the symphony are not given scholarships and not lauded for the hours and hours and hours they put into their practice. You'll never hear the school president brag about the world-class-level cellist who just won a major competition, and none of the orchestra members get special housing, special food, chartered buses to take them around, or cheerleaders, yet these folks work just as hard at their craft as the athletes.

  • It has been a long time, but I was a teaching assistant in Poly Sci 1010 at the University of Georgia years ago and had few student athletes in my classes, including gymnasts (big at UGA), a baseball player, swimmers, and one football player and one basketball player. If you don't know, UGA is a ridiculously fanatical SEC football school, and while basketball is not nearly as popular as football, I was teaching during the end of the Jim Harrick era, where his son committed academic fraud in a P.E. class (the class had final exams that included such stumpers as ""How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a Basketball Game?") that gave A's to a number of athletes to raise GPAs and eventually led to the firing of the Harricks. I only use this to demonstrate how coaches and athletes have used the system to create perverse incentives for the athletes and may condone a culture of anything to win, but does not indicate a level of intelligence for the students. All of the other students, even the starting WR on the football team, were thoughtful participants and, as Ed stated, always showed up to class. Most of the athletes I taught were more awake (these were 8AM and 9AM classes) than the average kid who took my class. And they were no more or less intelligent than the others.

    A few of these students were exceptional in class, and the rest were mediocre except for one, the baseball student. While the the baseball student attended class, he was lackadaisical and made no effort in any of his work and tests. And he was failing. Unfortunately for him, UGA was in the middle of a run to the college world series and he was ensuring his ineligibility. I worked to help the kid by offering more assistance during my office hours, proofreading any work ahead of time, and encouraging him to do more because I didn't want him to fail. None of it worked. He just didn't give a shit. Eventually his grade status caught the attention of his coach, and I ended up being subjected to verbal abuse from the coach over the phone – I recall being called a dick and an asshole, and the phrase "You're going to ruin his life" was also used. I sat down with the professor and the coach to discuss the situation. Thankfully, the professor supported my grading and refused to ensure the kid passed. He did, however, provide the player with additional opportunities, not given to other students, to get his grades up and maintain his eligibility. This also required more of my time and effort, but the baseball player buckled down and passed.

    My experience at UGA showed me that there is little to no difference in the intelligence and preparation of typical students or athletes. There seems to be a difference in the ultimate treatment of the players, as they are often afforded more opportunity to fix their screw-ups or raise their grades because a failure will end their season. In those instances where a player is designated as "academically ineligible", I readily assume that it is because he/she just did not even give a shit; they were too bothered to even attend class or attempt to show any interest is working because every professor I knew would help a kid who tried.

  • guttedleafsfan says:

    @surly, your story does not surprise me. Of all team sports baseball is the most "individualistic" and we have all heard the story of the 20 separate taxis to the airport. Baseball teams can win championships even if half the players hate the guts of the other half. In hockey by contrast, the "atmosphere in the locker room" and team bonding really seem to factor into the scoreboard results.

  • Now that this post has aged enough for the tailing comments to be read by no one, I feel comfortable in adding my two cents: my teaching experience is entirely inconsistent with Ed's observation. At my school, in the realm of athletics, we have only the Baseball Team.*

    For example, those 'frequent progress reports' once helped reveal to me rampant cheating in online quizzes (which were ALREADY open book/open note): during the ritual lineup of "student-athletes"** waiting for me to sign their progress forms after class, one by one I would ask each student, What did you get on Quizzes 1 and 2? The second "student-athlete" in line turned to the last "student-athlete" in line and asked, "Hey Danny, what'd I get on Quiz 1 and 2?"

    Now everyone has to take the quizzes in the Testing Center, just to insure that the person taking the OPEN BOOK/OPEN NOTE quiz is the actual student in question. Thanks a lot, ridiculously lazy cheating cheaters.

    Semester after semester, year after year, through three different coaches, poor attendance and poor classroom behavior are the norm from these "students." There typically are one or two exceptions a semester. They are the minority.

    *I can sort of understand their focus on Baseball to the exclusion of all else. At least three of them have left school early for The Show.

    **Part of the problem perhaps lies in the label "student-athlete." "Student" should be the noun, not the adjective: "athlete-student."

  • Allow me to pitch my random, anecdotal story.
    I attended a largish – 20k students – state university in the late 70’s. Freshman and sophomore year several of my roommates were on wrestling scholarships. My school was NCAA Division 1, but bad in every sport save Field Hockey – which was nationally ranked.
    A decade and a half earlier the wrestling team had put up a good run for a few years – national ranking and all – but by the time I was there they were dreadful – third tier at best.
    Half of the scholarship wrestlers majored in PE and – coincidentally enough – the Head Coach of the wrestling team just happened to be the PE Department. I don’t mean the Chair of the Department – I mean he was the sole instructor. The only people majoring in PE were scholarship athletes.
    And frankly the course work was a joke. Final exam questions literally included how many points do you get for kicking a field goal, how many players are on the court for each team at a given time in a basketball game, etc.
    But what of general studies classes and the other requirements outside the students major? From what I saw largely a joke as well. There had to have been pressure on the TAs/instructors/professors to pass the athletes.
    One wrestler – call him Joe – was particularly dumb. For entertainment we used to read his Eng. Comp papers out loud. It is no exaggeration to say he was incapable of writing a clear, coherent sentence, let alone a full essay.
    But he – and all his teammates – passed. And I will say in all fairness some of the wrestlers were good students who actually took their education seriously.
    But if you had an athletic scholarship and didn’t see the need to be burdened with all that book learnin’ you were free to blow it all off and still receive a diploma after four years.
    If the post and bulk of the comments are more indicative of the current environment hallelujah. But I observed a vastly different dynamic at work.

  • Some schools used to (and may still) make it easy for athletes not to attend class. One summer in the late 60's, I worked in the admissions office at Notre Dame, where I heard the following story.

    A high school senior, let's call him Mr. Football, had been admitted to ND as a regular student, but he chose instead to accept a football scholarship at Michigan State, where he started practices before classes had begun. After only a few days, Mr. F realized that he was going to be nothing more than prep team fodder for his spectacularly athletic teammates, and decided to forgo football glory. He called the ND admissions office to see whether he could still enroll in the fall entering class, and they said he could.

    Mr. F left to attend ND without having attended a single class at MSU. At the end of the first semester, much to their surprise, the ND admissions office received a transcript of Mr. F's grades at MSU. He had a C+ average.

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