Academics and the Student Athlete: an Athlete's Perspective
by Thomas Emma

From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
"Helping coaches coach better..."

Tom Emma was a graduate of Duke University, where he was a three-year basketball starter and captain his senior year, and was later drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1983. He held a Masters degree from Columbia University, specialized in sports conditioning, was the owner of Power Performance, Inc. and published several books. Tom authored several other articles on this website. Sadly (after the original posting of this article), Tom died on June 8, 2011... Coach Gels.

For years controversy has swirled around the academic qualifications and performance of scholarship student/athletes. This has been especially true of athletes in the revenue producing sports of football and basketball and at the so-called major programs (i.e., USC in football; Kentucky in basketball).

Everything from lax admission standards to low graduation rates to slide through classes to tutors writing papers for players has been publicized and scrutinized by the media ad nauseam. In fact, rarely does a collegiate season go by in either football or basketball where some type of academic scandal doesn't make headlines.

Coaches, athletic directors, and college presidents and administrators have weighed in on the subject regularly as well. Most pontificating on how student/athlete performance in the classroom is improving at their respective universities and how they are ever vigilantly on the case, making sure scholarship athletes go to class, attend study hall regularly, and behave on campus like solid citizens.

college classroom

What I almost never read or hear about, however, is the athlete's perspective on student/athlete academics. Players, both current and former, are universally silent on the subject. Why? I'm not quite sure. But what I am sure about are the tremendous and unique academic challenges facing elite, Division I scholarship athletes.

Many on the outside looking in erroneously believe that college athletes at top programs should somehow be on par academically with the general student population. This, in my opinion, is false logic for a number of reasons. Below, from my perspective as a former Division I college basketball player, I discuss many of these reasons in detail.

Without a doubt the biggest obstacle between scholarship basketball players and academic success is lack of time. With games, practices, travel, film/video sessions, weight training, injury/recovery treatments, media responsibilities, and alumni/community related duties it's a wonder athletes ever have time for anything outside basketball during the competitive season.

And remember, most of the above listed activities are much more time consuming than they appear at first blush. For instance, in addition to the hours on the court basketball practice entails going to and from the gym, warming up, cooling down, showering, dressing, and engaging in some sanity promoting locker room banter.

Travel includes packing, getting to and from the airport (if it's not a long bus ride, that is), dealing with delays, and, of course, missing and subsequently making up a fair share of class time. Media obligations not only encompass the 15 to 20 minutes of post game Q & A but numerous prearranged interviews set up by the schools sports information department as well.

Because of the popularity of college basketball and the huge number of media outlets in the country today (how many separate networks does ESPN have now, four, five?) this represents quite a time commitment on the part of the players. And don't think for a second that these scheduled interviews are optional.

While some old school coaches like Bob Knight may try to reign in player availability to the press in the name of academics, most programs welcome the free publicity and air time and use it as a as a recruiting tool.

I guess the best way for the lay person to understand how truly time challenged basketball players are during the season is to give an example of a typical day. Wake up is early, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7:00 AM give or take. Upon awakening, players must take physical inventory.

This entails making sure that the inevitable in-season aches and pains did not manifest themselves into full-blown injuries overnight. Provided everything is in working order some light stretching follows. This 20 some odd minute ritual is necessary to get the body moving and the blood pumping in preparation for another physically demanding day. Players are much less likely to injure themselves if their bodies begin the day loose and limber.

Breakfast is next. Unlike the rank and file student, sleeping late and skipping breakfast even once in a while is not an option for the competitive basketball player. Doing so would risk physical meltdown later in the day and contribute toward unwanted weight loss (most basketball players do all they can to maintain their body weight during the long, grueling basketball season.)

Breakfast is followed by morning classes. Because of afternoon practice sessions, basketball players must schedule the majority of their classes in the morning. (This is just another example of a restriction on player's lives that hinders academic flexibility and ultimately performance.)

Once classes conclude, a hearty lunch ensues. Again, all meals, including lunch, are required if players hope to perform at their best later in the day at practice-not to mention having some energy left when it's time to study after basketball activities conclude. From there, it's usually on to life maintenance chores such as laundry, shopping, room/apartment cleaning, etc.

Keep in mind, while the average student has his or her weekends basically free, college basketball players, because of games, practices, travel, etc. have no such luxury. Before you know it practice is looming and it's time to head over to the gym. Two to three hours of practice follow.

As mentioned above, after the on-court action players often hit the weight room to pump iron, sit for film sessions/chalk talks, and engage in injury/recovery treatments. After a hot shower, it's on to training table. This includes consuming huge amount of nutritious food to replenish an energy depleted body.

When the meal breaks, usually around 8:00 PM, it's time to hit the books, either at an organized study hall, the library, or in the privacy of a dorm room or apartment. Needless to say, by the time you sit to study you're ultra-exhausted. Even staying awake is a worthy challenge. Concentrating on school work, in my experience, next to impossible.

If you were wondering, game days are no less busy. Between the game itself (which, by the way, players are required to be at a minimum of 90 minutes before tip off), the morning/midday shoot around, and the mandatory pre game meal, time to study, even if you were so inclined, is limited.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that participating in Division I college basketball is physically demanding. The cumulative physical toll basketball players pay throughout both fall and spring semesters is enormous and it eventually reeks havoc on their ability to concentrate on their studies. To give some idea what it's like, I've detailed some of the physical challenges athletes must meet on a regular basis throughout the school year.

Most casual observers of college basketball believe that the season begins on October 15. And for good reason. This is the day (actually the morning) of AMidnight Madness@, where college basketball programs hold an open 12:01 AM practice session to promote the upcoming season to students, alumni, and other local fans. While October 15 is indeed the NCAA's mandated first day of Aofficial@ practice for Division I basketball teams, it is hardly the start of basketball related activities for players.

The minute cagers hit campus in late August (sometimes earlier) the physical grind begins in the form of intense daily afternoon pick-up games, every other day weight training sessions, regular cardiovascular conditioning workouts that usually culminate each week with a timed mile run (by far the worst day of the week!), and hours of individual skill development work.

By the time mid-October rolls around, believe me, you are already feeling the physical effects of big time college basketball. In fact, with the exception of games and travel, the preseason training regime is every bit as physically grueling as the regular season.

Basketball practices at the major college level are the cornerstone of a player's existence from mid-October to well into March. They are arduous affairs, usually lasting two to up to three hours depending upon time of year, upcoming game schedule, and the coach's disposition (if the coach is unhappy with the team's recent play practices are bound to be longer and tougher).

The sessions are filled with running, jumping, cutting, plenty of bumping and grinding, and, of course, much yelling and screaming. Early in the season prior to game play intensity is especially high, as players engage in fierce competition for playing time and coaches push to prepare their team for the regular season game schedule. Contrary to what most people think playing time is won on the practice court not during the games.

Rough play and even fist fights are commonplace during this time. The first six weeks of practice is also when your body is rounding into Abasketball shape@, so extraordinary muscle soreness is your constant companion. Extra conditioning in the form of wind sprints, including the dreaded suicide drill, and weight training continue throughout the regular season as well.

Playing in a fast paced, physical college basketball game will leave you tired, sore, dehydrated, and often bruised. As physically draining as practices can be, they don't hold a candle to games in terms of wearing the body down. The combination of the added intensity brought about by competition against a foreign opponent and the energy and excitement supplied by a noisy, crowd filled arena encourages the body to go the extra mile.

The downside of going this extra mile is the aftermath, which comes in the form of soreness producing lactic acid (lactic acid or lactate builds in the body after intense physical exertion).

Soreness is not the only byproduct of game play. The body and mind are in overdrive after competition. This heightened state does not abate quickly. In fact, it lingers well into the night, as the mind endlessly replays the night's action and adrenaline continues to pulse through the system.

As such, sleep does not come easily. Even the soundest of sleepers are up against it when it comes to getting a good night's rest after a hard played basketball game. Losing a night's sleep periodically may seem trivial, especially considering we're talking about young, highly conditioned athletes.

However, it must be understood that there are 30-plus games on a Division I college basketball schedule and the fatigue accumulated from those nights of lost rest can reek havoc on the body and especially on your ability to study the following day and beyond.

Oh, and if you thought since you're up anyway on game nights that it would be an ideal time to catch up on some school work, forget it. As mentioned, your body and mind are both cooking on high alert.

This makes concentrating on anything more serious than the boob tube a difficult task. I've actually tried to do some studying after games and found that no matter how hard I persevered my mind would find its way back to the just completed game and (far) away from my studies.

Ask any regular business traveler how physically draining frequent travel is and he or she will quickly remark: very! It is no different for the college basketball player except, unlike the business road warrior, athletes must engage in intense physical activity during the trip.

The fifteen some odd road trips, not including post season tournament travel, grind your body down bit by bit; every subsequent trip causes more and more physical wear and tear. Early flights after night games, frequent delays, long bus rides, and time changes all contribute to raising a player's fatigue level.

Travel difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that most basketball players are well over average size. Stuffing a 6'7" or 6'8" frame into a seat on an airplane or bus designed for an averaged sized individual is no easy proposition. Cramped space only adds to the physical strain of travel for basketball players.

team bus trip

Some college basketball followers are led to believe that these in season road trips are somehow educational and at least reasonably enjoyable. In my experience, they are nothing of the kind. Basketball trips are all business. You rarely have time for sightseeing or even to get a feel for the city you're visiting.

Once the destination is reached, usually the day before the game, it's right to the gym or arena for practice. (Practicing after a long trip is unquestionably one of the most difficult and uncomfortable parts of being a college basketball player!) After practice it's a hotel restaurant dinner followed by a team meeting in the coaches suite to go over the scouting report and watch tape of tomorrow's opponent.

The next day's game preparation includes more scouting report study, a midday shoot around, pre game meal, and nap. Before you know it the game has come and gone and you're on an early morning flight (or bus ride) home bleary eyed and physically exhausted.

While the physical toll of a long, grueling college basketball season is easily understandable, the emotional strain on young ballplayers is harder to quantify but just as prevalent. The pressure on athletes in big time college athletics is immense in this day and age. Huge money and coaches jobs are often at stake and in the hands, to a large extent, of the players.

Division I college basketball players are regularly scrutinized by their coaches; their athletic directors; the student body; the alumni; the general fan population; and the local, regional, and national media. And the pressures don't end there. No, not by a long shot. Most players have huge hometown fan followings as well.

This contingent, which includes family, high school friends, high school and AAU coaches, and so-called Aadvisors@, are constantly in player's ears imploring them to do this, do that, shoot more, pass less, etc. The majority of the well meaning Aadvice@, by the way, flies in the face of what team coaches want and expect.

Some players, as I can attest from personal experience, even carry the expectations of entire towns on their backs. All this can be extremely stressful and, by the way, a no win situation for the athlete, as many townspeople actually expect the player to duplicate his high school success at the collegiate level. This, as we all know, rarely happens.

No less an authority than long time college basketball broadcaster and analyst, Billy Packer, would seem to agree that stress can be brutal at the division I level. Packer, never one to mince words or be easy on players (or coaches for that matter), spoke frankly during this year's NCAA tournament on the subject.

He made a point to emphasize to the viewing audience the tremendous emotional strain these young people were under, especially during tournament time. And remember, we're not talking about corporate executives or even seasoned professional athletes here. We're talking about 18 to 22 year-old young men.

To make matters worse, every young player has his own unique stress threshold. Some are stress hardy and handle anything and everything in their path with equanimity; others are emotionally fragile, letting every little up and down effect their outlook (and performance); most are somewhere in the middle; all are hard to figure, since college age youngsters are not the most communicative bunch.

This, of course, makes it extremely difficult to recognize if an athlete is on the emotional edge. As such, coaches and other assisting personal (assistant coaches, trainers, strength coaches, etc.) are often in the dark concerning a player's emotional state. Conversely, physical fatigue is reasonably easy to detect. It shows up in the form of short jump shots, not getting back on defense, and missing free throws late in contests.

As you might expect, the emotional turmoil that most Division I college basketball players endure over the course of a typical season makes staying on top of ones studies extremely difficult. Emotional equilibrium is a major factor in a human beings ability to concentrate on complicated subject matter (i.e., university level school work).

The constant pressure from the outside, along with the ups (winning and performing well) and downs (losing and performing poorly) just doesn't allow for much in the way of emotional stability. As such, basketball players can be expected at the very least to display uneven academic performance from early November through mid-March-unfortunately this encompasses a good portion of the college school year.

During my college athletic career I had the opportunity to compete against some of best amateur basketball players in the world. Just some of the names include top 50 all-time NBA greats Charles Barkley and James Worthy; three-time national player of the year, Ralph Sampson; and oh yeah, that Michael Jordan fella. The experience was rewarding, often frustrating (especially when guarding Jordan), and always exciting.

Who would have imagined, considering the names mentioned above, that an equally difficult competition lay ahead for me elsewhere on campus. Where you ask? In the classroom. What most who follow college basketball seem to forget is at schools like Duke, Virginia, Stanford, and many others the student body consists of the creme de la creme of academic achievers.

These young men and women are extremely talented and unequivocally prepared for the rigors of high level academia. They take their school work every bit as seriously as athletes take their games. As such, basketball players, even those who come to college with above average high school academic records, are not nearly up to par with these dedicated whiz kids.

To add some perspective, think of it this way. Take a top student who was accepted at Georgetown (or Duke, or Cal., or Georgia Tech, etc.) who also happened to be the sixth man on his reasonably successful high school basketball team and match him up in a pick-up basketball game against a top freshmen basketball recruit.

Regardless of how hard he tries or how many hours he's spent practicing on the basketball court in between classes and study sessions, the rank and file student won't stand a chance against the prized recruit. It's the same in the classroom. Expecting a middle of the road student to compete favorably with a high school valedictorian is, in a word, ridiculous.

Butting heads academically with these superior students is no different than trying to defend Michael Jordan on the fast break. It's intimidating and can lead to one falling behind in short order. That's exactly what happened to me during my first semester freshman year at Duke.

Before I had time to breath I was behind the eight ball in most of my classes and struggling to stay afloat (i.e., stay academically eligible for the basketball season). It certainly wasn't the professors fault. Nor was I not trying my best. It was just that the large majority of my fellow classmates were so far ahead of me academically at the time that I couldn't keep up.

Throw into the mix that I was also adjusting to my first year of ACC basketball and it was not a pleasant initiation to college to say the least. Only extra (hard) work with great tutors, an extremely helpful and understanding academic advisor, and a bit of old fashion good luck allowed me to continue my college experience past semester one.

So there you have it. The major reasons as I see it why scholarship college athletes have the odds stacked against them in the classroom. Hopefully after reading this article you'll have a better understanding what student athletes, basketball players more specifically, are up against academically at the university level.

As more eyes open to their challenges and struggles more ideas and strategies will emerge to help them succeed not only in-between the lines of the playing field or court but in the lecture halls, science labs, and classrooms as well.

Also see: Maintaining Student-Athlete Stress Levels