Student Athlete: An Oxymoron?


Jen Atkinson
Staff Writer

School is back, and so are our favorite sports—soccer, volleyball, basketball, football (well, at least on TV there’s football…). We love dressing up in our school colors, watching some of the most athletic people in the school show everyone what they’re made of, and cheer those enthusiastic yet inappropriate cheers we at University of California, Santa Barbara do best.

These athletes spend hours upon hours practicing and playing to develop those skills and bodies we so admire from the bleachers. Some of our Division 1 players are even good enough to go into the professional leagues; however, even those who play simply for the love of the game are bound to a schedule that becomes overwhelmingly dominated by their sport. Student athletes are put under a combined pressure to do well in school and in sports, and with the cases of academic fraud found in places like UNC Chapel Hill, the question arises: is it possible to be successful as a student and as an athlete simultaneously?

The primary purpose of college is to enrich students’ minds with a form of higher education, usually in the pursuit of a degree. Therefore, unless these aspiring players plan on using their experience at a university as a gateway into pro athletics, sports should not take priority over academics. Frank Deford, in an interview on NPR, states that many college athletes all over the country have been admitted into their universities with significantly lower credentials than the rest of their class. He goes on to argue that they are brought onto the school team with the primary goal of keeping them eligible, with much less real focus on keeping them educated.

D1 sports games bring our school a lot of money as well as a lot of school spirit. I mean, they have to be doing something right to earn a better pass time than a senior in the honors program, right? Nevertheless, the amount of pressure to do well has created an unfair focus on maintaining eligibility rather than striving to excel in each and every class they take. In some extremely competitive atmospheres, the coaches and players have been so desperate to keep eligibility that they have committed academic fraud by cheating and altering grades in order to do so. Luckily, this is not the case at UCSB, but that doesn’t mean our athletes are under any less pressure to live up to higher standards than those who are exclusively students.

Unfortunately, accepting a position on the school’s D1 team is similar to putting both grades and study time in jeopardy. While some of us envy their athleticism and priority registration, student athletes are faced with decisions and consequences that aren’t really fair. Their coaches first give them the ultimatum: give priority to the practice and game schedule and remain eligible, or be cut from the team. However, they also face a sort of ultimatum from their classes: give priority to classes and getting good grades, or get cut from the major.

So we start to see the problem: when academics and athletics both demand so much, how can a person create a cohesive balance? The world of classes and the world of sports are two separate spheres, not realistically meant to collide. The closest thing to an overlap that exists is the student athlete, but even that’s forcing a seemingly impractical combination.

That’s the thing. It shouldn’t seem impractical to be able to balance a sport on the side of school. But herein lies the problem: their practice, traveling, and game schedules make it difficult to put schoolwork, studying, or consistent class attendance as a priority. Reducing their school load to the minimum amount of units each quarter sometimes causes them to either fall behind in classes, stay in college an extra year, or choose a major with fewer requirements in order to finish in time.

Athletes should be able to acquire a Bachelor’s Degree or higher without sacrificing study time to their respective sports. But this problem comes back to the system, not the individual athlete or coach. Should athletics rule a university? No. Should an athlete have to sacrifice the sports they love in order to graduate with a respectable GPA? No. They shouldn’t have to aim for a career in pro athletics or give up either their social life or scholarly life to be part of a competitive sports team.

A person’s contribution to the school as a source of revenue and school spirit by being part of a sports team should absolutely never overrule that person’s academic contribution to the school as a student. But until this problem is fixed so that a student’s academic career is the one central focus of their experience at a university, the student athlete will continue this tug-of-war between the two worlds that perhaps shouldn’t collide in the first place. So no, “student athlete” should not be an oxymoron. But until there’s a change in this system, it will be.