Sadeke Konte never realized the demands of being a Division I student-athlete until he stopped being one.
Konte, who just finished his final season as starting safety on the football team, does not have to be at the practice facility three to four hours a day. He does not have to worry about being so physically and mentally drained at the end of the day that he can hardly pick up a book.
Now that he has experienced life without athletics, he said, he marvels at how he made it through four years as a college football player.
“I was in [athletics] for so long, I couldn’t step out of the box to look at it,” Konte said. “People don’t realize the demands, and now I can because I’m not playing anymore. I see what I went through, and I see how my body is now. My whole being is just so relaxed.”
Konte speaks for a number of student-athletes who said they sacrifice grades and social lives to compete in college athletics.
“What people don’t really appreciate is the demands on a college-level athlete, particularly in high-profile sports,” said Kevin Delaney, graduate director of sociology. “The demands are tremendous: the amount of time a student-athlete has to put into practice, games, making up work because of travel, and just the physical and mental exhaustion of being an athlete in high-level sport.”
Overloaded schedules are familiar to many students here. About three-fourths of the university’s 32,000 students live off-campus, and many of them have jobs in addition to going to school.
But being a student-athlete supersedes the student-worker stress, according to a few who have experienced both.
“My adviser told me that by my junior or senior year, I’d probably have to quit gymnastics because of all the demands,” said gymnast John Behrle, who still manages to compete as a senior. “It’s really been a challenge.”
Contrast that with student non-athletes, whose participation in extracurricular activities typically increases as they spend more time in college. Student non-athletes engage in extracurricular activities to build connections and strengthen their chances of employment, according to The Princeton Review and Collegeboard.com.
Athletics is not an activity or a hobby, student-athletes agreed, because they also face challenges in the classroom, as well as out.
Each sport, whether a revenue-producing program like basketball or football, or a non-revenue sport like gymnastics, carries with it a stigma.
The most common stereotype is that of the “dumb jock.”
“Athletes are very conscious of that label, and it’s very important for teachers to not approach athletes that way,” Delaney said. “They are very sensitive to being treated like that. They can pick up those cues that a teacher is looking at them differently. And as a teacher, you have to be aware of these cues and break down those barriers so the athlete knows you’re going to take them seriously as an academic.”
That stigma extends to all student-athletes. Junior gymnast Erika Messa said she and her teammates have to work for respect as both students and athletes.
“A lot of professors on campus are very willing to work with you, but there are a few, of course, who don’t understand,” Messa said. “They think you’re just trying to get off easy and make up an excuse to miss class.”
Depending on the team, student-athletes expressed a range of opinions on academic support. Student-athletes in revenue sports said the attention they receive is often too much; student-athletes in non-revenue sports said attention from tutors is almost non-existent.
“For somebody like [senior walk-on] Wilbur Allen or myself, we pretty much do what we need to do,” said junior Antywane Robinson, a forward on the men’s basketball team and, like Allen, maintains a GPA above 3.0.
“After a while we just want to tell them, ‘You tell me what I gotta do, and I’ll do it.’ The people who have slacked off need somebody on their back 24/7, but I’m on top of what I need to do, so you can worry about everybody else. Don’t worry about me,” Robinson said.
Most student-athletes in high-profile sports shared Robinson’s opinion that academic support had its flaws, but overall succeeded. Nyika White, an all-American men’s gymnast, said the advisers do not put forth the same effort to help the non-revenue athletes.
“Last year, me and John [Behrle] were up with our former compliance officer when Kenyatta [Rush, academic adviser to a number of teams, including gymnastics] came in to have a conference or something with her,” White said. “Me and John had to leave, and when we walked out, Kenyatta asked her, ‘Who is that kid? He looks familiar.’ And he was talking about John, his own student-athlete.
“When you go into an office and you have your academic adviser say something like that, you’re like, ‘What are we doing this for?'” White said.
Rush described the burden placed on him and Walt Holliday, director of academic support, by the number of student-athletes they are expected to advise. They noted the football team in particular – with 70-plus student-athletes annually – which graduated at a 57 percent rate in 2004.
With their advisers’ attention occupied, student-athletes from non-revenue sports said they have formed their own system of academic support: their teammates.
“We mainly go to each other, and if we can help each other out, we do,” said Messa, a co-captain of the women’s gymnastics team. “There are so many girls on the team that you can pretty much always find someone who has taken that class before and can help you.”
Behrle, a co-captain of the men’s gymnastics team, said non-revenue athletes are not missing out on much by not going to study hall.
“I’m never in there. I’m always doing my homework somewhere else,” Behrle said. “But a couple of the older guys go down there sometimes. It’s like a dungeon. No windows, can’t talk, can’t do anything but study.”
In light of recent investigations into the athletics departments at Ohio State, Michigan and elsewhere, the biggest obstacle for a student-athlete on a revenue team is proving is proving he or she is not asking the teacher to break the rules. Advocates like those in The Drake Group, who have uncovered a number of infractions in college athletics, serve a valuable purpose but help perpetuate a culture in which professors are forever wary of student-athletes.
“You can definitely sense it,” Konte said. “You walk into class, sit down, and the teacher’s not even looking your way. Even if it’s a big lecture, he notices you but it’s like he wants to avoid you, like you’re some sort of virus or disease that once he looks at you, you’ll get a hold of him and he’s going to get sucked into some big conspiracy.”
Representatives of the basketball and football teams, Temple’s most visible athletic programs, said the personal pressure is not as great as the pressure one feels from the institution. To keep the student-athletes eligible so they can compete and give Temple a good name the university ensures that those students have every resource, often to excess.
“You’re always set,” said senior Ari Moore, a forward on the women’s basketball team that has won 19-straight games. “You have class at a certain time. You have study hall at a certain time. You have practice at some other time. You usually never have free time. When you’re in class, are you focused? Or are you thinking about playing UMass tomorrow? You have to keep your mind on the right thing at the right time. You don’t want to end up leaving school after four years going, ‘[At least] I was on a 19-game win streak.'”
Sometimes, high-profile athletes are affected by negative events at other institutions. Junior Mardy Collins, an all-America candidate on the men’s basketball team, admitted he took notice when University of Texas’ leading scorer, P.J. Tucker, was suspended due to academic ineligibility on Jan. 20. The Longhorns, then ranked No. 10 in the nation, lost four of their next five games.
“That’s why I try to do the best I can in class,” Collins said. “I just see it as bad leadership if I’m ineligible and missing half the season. It would be a letdown to the team.”
To keep incidents like the one at Texas to a minimum, many large universities employ extensive academic support systems. Freshmen, some sophomores and student-athletes with a GPA below 2.0 are required to attend eight hours of study hall per week.
Is that really so much more stressful than the regular student working 20 hours a week with a full load of credits?
“It’s not like going to work and coming home to do homework,” Konte said. “It’s not like that. It’s physically draining to the extent were you come back and the first thing you’re thinking about is not homework or studying. It’s usually sleep, and more sleep.”
Sophomore Dion Dacons, a forward on the men’s basketball team, said extra sleep is a staple of student-athlete life.
“There’s not a lot of free time at all,” Dacons said. “Any free time during the season, like we’re in the thick of the season right now, we sleep. You come in from class in the middle of the day or on your way to class, you walk by you teammates’ rooms and all the lights are off. But you know they’re in there, sleeping.”
For every critic who calls athletes lazy, Konte has a suggestion.
“I’ve always believed that a week before camp, every football program in the nation should have a little workshop,” Konte said. “People can sign up for it, like 20 people, and they can come out and practice for a week. Just for a week, go through a normal practice, not two-a-days, just a normal practice for a week or two, and see how it feels. I think it would change a lot of people’s minds about football players and athletes in general.”
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.