When it comes to recruiting players and running games, few would dispute that those things fall squarely within a coach’s domain.
But when it comes to providing academic advice for student-athletes, coaches should think twice before they start telling their players what courses to take and which majors to pursue.
That’s the advice contained within a new study titled “Studying the Determinants of Student-Athlete Grade Point Average: The Roles of Identity, Context, and Academic Interests.”
Among other things, the study, which appeared recently in Social Science Quarterly, found that, when coaches discourage certain majors, it leads to a drop in a student-athlete’s GPA.
Giving wrong advice
Drilling down deeper, the study’s authors—economics professor Kurt J. Beron and criminology professor Alex R. Piquero, both of The University of Texas at Dallas—found that the lower GPA that resulted when coaches steered players away from certain majors only showed up for Division I males and Division II females.
“From a policy perspective, this suggests that academic advising by coaches, at least for two groups, may have a negative effect on academic achievement,” the study states.
The study sounds a cautionary note about the tension between athletics and academics.
“The incentive that coaches have to keep SAs [student-athletes] on the field may well color any academic advising that they might do,” the study continues. “Perhaps other more qualified personnel should be providing SAs with advising regarding their academic major.”
Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, an organization that advocates on behalf of college basketball and its players and coaches, agreed.
Haney said that, even though coaches are held accountable for the academic success and graduation rates of their players, it’s “risky business” for coaches to advise players on what courses to take and which majors to pursue.
“I think it’s risky in that the coach can be labeled as not supporting the student-athlete’s academic interests, that he’s trying to funnel them into something else that may be less strenuous academically,” Haney says. “I just think that you open yourself up to questions as to your support of the student-athlete and his academic pursuits, and you can be criticized for that through the media or through a student-athlete that says, ‘I got that major but that’s not what I wanted.’”
Such stories are not unheard of. For instance, two football players at the University of Connecticut told Diverse last year that they had planned initially to study engineering but settled on other majors once they discovered that engineering was incompatible with the demands of football.
Ross Bjork, athletic director at the University of Mississippi, said that sometimes student-athletes must come to terms that a certain major “may not be for you because there’s a lab that meets from 2 to 6” p.m. that conflicts with practice.
“It may be a sacrifice that a young person has to make,” Bjork says.
The UT Dallas study also examined issues such as student-athletes’ identity and professional or Olympic aspirations.
“As we hypothesized, SAs who see themselves more as athletes than as academics reported lower GPAs, as did SAs who spend more time thinking about their sport than academics and SAs who expected a professional or Olympic career,” the study states.
Earl Smith, a sociology professor at George Mason University and author of
Race, Sport and the American Dream, says that he has found the practice of steering students away from or toward certain classes is actually much more organized than a simple matter of coaches giving advice.
“In one of my books, I talk about the fact that many of these schedules are set in place and the athlete just picks up the paper, takes it where it has to be signed, and you won’t find the core courses, the language courses, the science courses” on their transcripts, Smith says.
After a while, Smith says that he gave up trying to insist that student-athletes select the courses they need to take.
“For me personally, I had to give it up in terms of a strong hardline because the athletes would say, ‘Those classes that I really needed, I had to change my schedule because it looks like I might get a chance to start next year,’” Smith says. “What can you say to that? You can’t say no. So my philosophy was, ‘Go for it. Do the best you can.’”
But often, he says, those decisions came with a cost, such as leaving college without a degree—a scenario captured in a recent report titled “Black Male Student Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports.”
According to the study, “across four cohorts, 53.6 percent of Black male student-athletes graduated within six years, compared to 68.5 percent of student-athletes overall, 58.4 percent of Black undergraduate men overall, and 75.4 percent of undergraduate students overall.” The study was conducted by professor Shaun Harper, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s not a pretty picture, trying to struggle, maybe with a baby,” Smith says. “It’s difficult, and I would hypothesize it’s doubly difficult for a lot of these young Black guys who don’t have the kind of social capital that many other students have.”
The UT Dallas researchers also examined student attitudes toward the importance of graduation, feeling positive about their major, the effects of taking an “easy major,” and having an interest in one of four academic experiences: research projects, internships, study abroad or a thesis.
“SAs who believe graduating is important as well as SAs who were at least somewhat positive about their major were more likely to have higher GPAs,” the study found. “On the other hand, SAs who did not have interest in additional academic experiences and SAs who chose a major because it was easy reported lower GPAs.” Smith says that what he found most interesting about the study was not its findings, which he said are consistent with prior research, but rather that one of the authors—Beron—is a faculty athletics representative.
“In my 30-something years of working in these institutions, these guys, and most of them are men, they’re basically attached to the athletic department,” Smith says.
Beron, vice president of the NCAA Faculty Athletics Representatives Association for Division III, says—speaking from his own experience but not on behalf of FARA—that he has a different view.
According to FARA, faculty athletics representatives, known as FARs, are designated by the institution to “serve as a liaison between the institution and the athletics department and also as a representative of the institution in conference and NCAA affairs.”
“Each institution determines the role of the FAR at that particular institution,” FARA states on its website. “According to one of FARA’s Guiding Principles, the role of the FAR is: ‘… to ensure that the academic institution establishes and maintains the appropriate balance between academics and intercollegiate athletics.’”
As Beron states: “As for individual faculty athletics representatives being silent on various issues, I would say, personally but not officially, that most are deeply committed to the well-being of student-athletes and work hard as advocates on their behalf on a day-to-day basis on their own campuses.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.