What I’ve Learned Working with Division I Student Athletes
Do you really want to be a student-athlete?
Trust me, it’s too tiring being a student-athlete
You don’t want to be a NCAA Division I student athlete. Trust me. It’s too tiring.
I’m starting my fifth year as faculty member at the University of New Mexico (UNM). I do typical faculty stuff —I teach courses (history in my case), write articles, and sit on an ever changing number of committees and task forces.
I like my students. Really. Most are a pleasure to work with, a joy even. Despite what you might have heard, not all millennials are entitled, social media-addicted, snowflakes. In fact, I hardly meet any students on our Albuquerque campus who fit that stereotype. Of course I mainly hang out in the library and Honors College, but still.
I also do some work each year with the UNM Athletic Department. You may have heard of it; we’ve been in the news a fair bit lately. The Lobos fired one basketball coach and hired another.
This, of course, is relatively standard offseason practice, but that UNM hired away the coach from instate rival New Mexico State University added a nice twist (of the knife) to the story.
In April, New Mexico announced that it was cutting its intercollegiate ski team, one of only 12 such NCAA Division I programs in the country. Then, after much protest and promises of fund raising, the championship winning ski program was restored. At least for one year.
Next, a $10 million naming rights deal for UNM’s football and basketball facilities was announced. Welcome Dreamstyle Remodeling; thanks for the cash!
Most recently, the UNM Lobos have been in the news for a questionable donor golf trip to Scotland and the retirement of the Mountain West’s most senior A.D. Paul Krebs. Yes, it’s been quite a spring and summer around Loboland.
I run a niche program designed to foster high level academic achievement (think: undergraduate research, applying for prestigious fellowships, etc) among UNM’s student athlete population. Due to this position, I’ve become very familiar with the questions surrounding big-time college athletics.
Should student athletes be paid? Should they be allowed to unionize? Are concussions being diagnosed accurately and treated appropriately? Are university athletic programs doing enough to combat sexual assaults on campus? Are the time demands on Division I student athletes reasonable? I know the scandals too: UNC and Baylor occupy the top (bottom?) positions on that list.
With all of these debates swirling, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m only sure—really, I-know-there’s-a-God-and-it’s-not-me, sure—of a few things about intercollegiate athletics and student athletes.
Here’s what I know.
1. I was never an athlete, not like this. A long time ago, in a school too small to be of any consequence, I lettered in basketball and cross-country. I thought I was pretty good, pretty athletic stuff. Indeed most of us played something in middle school or high school. It’s because of this familiarity, perhaps, that we overlook the gulf of talent and the chasm of commitment that separates us from them.
Until you watch practices up close and learn of the all day, year round training that goes on, it’s difficult to fathom the level at which Division I athletes are competing.
The commitment level is absurdly high. Even at a “mid-major” school like UNM, which competes in the Mountain West Conference, there are Olympians, National Team members, and future professionals scattered throughout the athletic program every year. These are the 1 percent, athletically speaking. Despite what “that guy” on your intramural team or in your rec league says, his not being on the university team was not a matter of his choice. He just wasn’t good enough.
2. Student athletes are physically tired. It’s hard to conjure up too much sympathy for 20 year olds who are at their athletic peaks, most of whom are not working outside jobs, and receiving athletic scholarships to attend a flagship university.
Indeed, it is a good deal in many ways. What I’ve been struck with during my years working with student athletes is that they are tired—downright physically tired. Their uber-packed schedules often require early mornings in the weight room, followed by classes, followed by team film study, followed by…whatever else it is that college students do.
Travel to competitions (and practice sites for, say, the golf and ski teams) creates scheduling whiplash. And everything else aside, devoting several hours every day to the highest level of athletic performance is extraordinarily fatiguing.
Even for these finely tuned athletes. None of this is to say that I excuse a student athlete who falls asleep in my class (not that that would ever happen during my riveting lectures), but I more clearly than ever understand that physiological wear and tear is a significant factor for student athletes.
3. This is ambition in its purest form. I’ve gotten to know individuals from all of UNM’s teams. There are differences, of course, but I’ve found that nearly all student athletes have an almost maniacal ambition to be excellent at their given sport. They are driven—possessed even—to improve. They devote countless hours to fixing weaknesses that the rest of us can barely see. They train and tinker and consult with experts in order to gain even the slightest bit of improvement.
This ambition might seem like an obvious attribute, not even particularly worth noting. But as a middle-aged male who spends much of my life simply trying to show up on time, meet my obligations, and coordinate where to pick up the children, there is something very humbling about watching the pursuit of brilliance.
When is the last time that I tried to be this good at anything? To those who might argue that such obsession over, say, the ability to hit a crushing forehand return when receiving a looping topspin serve is a misallocation of effort and time, I say quit lying to yourself. For most of us it’s not a matter of are we going to pursue excellence in this or that, it’s whether we are going to chase it at all.
So it’s not all that much, but that’s what I’ve concluded that I really know about Division I athletes.
Ryan Swanson is an Associate Professor of History in the University of New Mexico’s Honors College. He will be writing a series of articles for the Mountain West Wire on the strange history of college sports in the American southwest and Rocky Mountain regions.