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When Eligibility Is Over

There has been tremendous progress in closing the graduation gap between Black and White collegiate athletes. A recent study by Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, found that 35 percent of Black student-athletes who began college in 1984 graduated, compared to 59 percent of White student-athletes — a gap of 21 percent. The latest study of federal graduation rate data puts the gap at 15 percent, with 53 percent of the 2001 cohort of Black student-athletes graduating while 68 percent of White student-athletes graduated. While the gap has been narrowed, it’s still a gap — a troubling one that means too many athletes are leaving college unprepared when their eligibility ends.

Black student-athletes are often left at the back stoop of the athletic program beseeching someone to provide an opportunity for their second-wind, whether athletically or academically. As a former Division-I coach and student-athlete, I have witnessed many student- athletes at that stoop. I have seen Black student-athletes neglected by advisers, professors, counselors and coaches who should be assisting students transition into life after collegiate sports. The second reason studentathletes may leave ill-equipped could be attributed to the failure of student-athletes to prepare themselves for post-sports life.

During my five-year tenure as a player, many student-athletes I knew became lost in the labyrinthine collegiate system. Although many factors contributed to this, the complacency that comes when athletes’ immediate needs are being met is a major cause. For instance, some athletes were all too happy to allow counselors and/or advisers to set their semester course schedules, unaware of the consequences. Some counselors, coerced into doing it or not, would place athletes in undemanding classes just to qualify them for the minimum required credit hours, regardless of whether the class was relevant to the student’s major. The objective: for the studentathlete to be eligible in his/her sporting event.

Last fall, USA Today examined the majors declared by student-athletes at 142 institutions to determine if student-athletes were being “clustered” into select majors. At least 25 percent of the juniors and seniors on a team had to have the same major to make the list, and the paper found that 83 percent of the schools had at least one team where players were disproportionately represented in one major.

The blame, however, does not rest solely on the athletic department and its personnel. Another vital component of understanding the academic process is the responsibility of the student-athlete. For example, every athlete is usually assigned an adviser at the start of the semester. Through my experiences, many student-athletes did not take the initiative to communicate or have meaningful dialogue with their adviser throughout their collegiate career. Many of my fellow athletes met with their adviser or counselor once a semester or not at all. I was proactive and met with my adviser every month to have a productive and informative conversation about my grades and future disposition. The student- athlete has to take responsibility for themselves off the field in order to create and take advantage of the opportunities that may arise. Too many student-athletes meander through the collegiate system lacking initiative, guidance and vision.

If unprepared for the future and what it holds, the end of the tenure could be a humbling experience, especially when an athlete realizes that they will not be receiving a monthly stipend or Pell Grant check anymore. The only check one is subject to receive will be the occasional “reality check,” forcing them to finally wonder, “Have I planned for the future? Am I even going to graduate? What am I going to do now?” Along with the uncertainty, a lack of identity and association can sometimes plague student- athletes as their athletic careers come to a close.

How to prepare for the transition? First and foremost, all student-athletes must understand and acknowledge that not everyone can proceed onto a professional sports team. Secondly, they need to take charge. In their freshman year, they should talk with counselors and advisers to map out their academic careers. They need a clear understanding of what classes they need to fulfill degree requirements. If tutoring is available, they should use it.

Just as important, they should also have an extensive conversation with counselors and advisers about life after sports, including whether to apply for graduate school. Many athletes will still have a preference for staying within their prospective sport to pursue careers in coaching, training, semi-professional sports and refereeing. They should use their relationships with athletic departments to learn more about these opportunities.

Discipline, a good work ethic and accountability are positive traits that are usually acquired by playing a sport, and they are also the same competencies and characteristics that employers desire. The challenge is to redirect that competitive drive and passion once displayed on the field into a new career after collegiate sports. All student-athletes should take the opportunity to excel off the field when they’re still in school, because when the eligibility is over, it’s over!

Forrest Foster is the head of access services in the C.G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University and a former Division-I coach.

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