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.