Student-athletes play on some of the biggest stages the sports world has to offer. To do so, they attend class all day and then head directly to the practice field until nightfall. The coaches who work with them are signed to multi-million-dollar contract. During the 2016-2017 school year, the NCAA hit $1 billion in total revenue for the first time. The players see none of that.
No wonder, critics say, the term student-athlete is perversely used to describe the players in collegiate athletics.
So, what does it mean when we use the term student-athlete?
Texas Longhorn kicker Chris Naggar said, “it really should be ‘athlete-student’ just because your school revolves around when you have your sport.”
Sitting down in the north end zone of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, it was evident Naggar was quite familiar with this particular spot. When first contacting him, he asked to meet in this part of the stadium because it is a place where he does most of his work. It appeared it was a place he was able to escape the football limelight without being too far from the stadium. This area allows him to not have to rush to practice or film sessions because he is already there. In some way, the stadium is his home away from home.
Naggar, a redshirt junior from Arlington, Texas, was recruited by Charlie Strong as a preferred walk-on. As a senior in high school, Naggar was an all-state kicker and punter. In his third year on the University of Texas campus, Naggar has been around to see the inner workings of what goes into being a student-athlete.
“You do what you have to do in class to work around your athletic schedule,” Naggar said. “We have that priority registration to build our schedule around our practice times and I don't get to work on homework or even get started until it’s over.”
A junior and former bullpen catcher at Michigan State University, David Greenberg, echoed Naggar’s thoughts.
“Being a division one student-athlete is a full-time job, it is not a full-time student,” Greenberg said. “You are really a full-time athlete and then a part-time student.”
For two years, Greenberg was the bullpen catcher at MSU. He brought up the fact classes are scheduled around their sport, so they are not double-booked during practice times.
Naggar backed up Greenberg’s point on booking classes.
Naggar started out as an architectural engineering major but had to change his career path because all the classes he was planning to sign up for were during his afternoon practice times.
“I had to choose whether I wanted to quit football or postpone getting my engineering degree,” Naggar said. “I decided to postpone (engineering) because I only have a short amount of time, I can have this experience of playing football and felt it was going to be the best option for me.”
Naggar continued highlighting how some people just see student-athletes as just athletes, and they have no reason to be complaining of any compensation because they have a ‘free-ride’ to a college diploma.
Although he is not on scholarship, he did speak for his teammates and agreed free education is pretty valuable and the ability to go to some of the top universities the country has to offer to try and find their academic passion is a gift.
However, there is a stigma on college campuses suggesting student-athletes do not deserve to be on campus.
“The amount of time we spend on a day-to-day basis and everything that it does to us, we should be rewarded,” Naggar said. “I mean for me, I'm a walk-on so technically I'm doing this just for me wanting to do it, but you know, I think we should be compensated for the amount of work we put in.”
So, why is there a lack of credit given to student-athletes for balancing athletics and academics?
UT junior Wayde Adler believes their work is under-appreciated and overwhelming.
“There is a myth that student-athletes do not do school work, or just get other people to do their work for them,” Adler said before continuing, “when in reality, these students are smart enough to get into top-tier universities across the country.”
“It amazes me that they are able to balance both school and sports,” Adler said. “To me, these two tasks are incredible acts of talent.”
However, it all comes down to academic scandals, which have allowed players to pass so they can play. One of the most notable scandals occurred at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is known as the ‘paper class scandal’.
This scandal at UNC is said to have helped over 3,000 student-athletes from the early 1990s to 2011.
In 2014, Sara Ganim was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Later that year, she released a story analyzing how some college athletes excel on the field, but can only read at the elementary level.
Ganim interviewed Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill. In the article, she recalled a time when a student-athlete sought out her help because of their inability to read and write.
Willingham told CNN, “fake classes were just a symptom of the bigger problem of enrolling good athletes who didn’t have the reading skills to succeed at college.”
In that same year, Steve Delsohn of ESPN showed clear evidence of UNC deliberately assisting in cheating efforts. Delsohn interviewed Rashad McCants, a member of the 2004-2005 National Championship team. McCants, who was the 2nd leading scorer for that season, admitted to having tutors write papers for him.
ESPN has him on record saying “[he] rarely went to class for about half his time at UNC, and he remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.”
McCants also told ESPN he made the dean’s list in the spring of 2005 earning straight A’s despite not attending any of his classes. He said advisers and tutors who worked with the basketball program steered him to take the paper classes within the African-American Studies program.
To combat this, Iowa State has taken a new approach to academics. They are encouraging their student-athletes to take summer classes to alleviate the stress of balancing academics and athletics.
Tom Hill, Senior Vice President for Student Affairs at Iowa State, said, “It’s done partly because the school recognizes that it is simply too much to ask athletes to jump into a tough schedule of practice and games, plus keep up classwork, especially if they are already academically behind.”
“Getting ahead, studying early, and going to office hour, is one of the hardest things for me to do,” Naggar said.
“I've never been to one office hours because they're always during practice time. So, you know, I kind of lose a little bit of you know, that jump that normal students can get on us.”
Naggar broke down his day-to-day life and it makes sense why universities have begun to implement athletes taking classes during the summer.
His mornings begin promptly at 6:30 a.m. as he heads to his first workout of the day. “The workouts tend to last from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. before I head to my first class around 9:30 a.m.,” Naggar said.
He has class till about 2:00 p.m. and then heads directly towards the stadium for team meetings, which run till 4:00 p.m. After meetings, Naggar suits up and heads to the practice fields for the next three hours.
Before addressing what happens next, he took a deep breath and sighed. It was clear he was tired, listing out his day-to-day and hearing all he goes through.
At 8:00 p.m., Naggar has a decision to make. “[He] can either choose to head back to my dorm to sleep and get some homework done or stick around for a study hall till 10:00 p.m.,” Naggar said. “At this point in the night, I’m ready to sleep, but I know I have work to do.”
In total, Naggar said he is at the stadium for about nine hours and in class for about four hours. “It definitely is prioritizing athletics over academics, but I work hard to find the balance,” said Naggar.
In the Texas Men’s Basketball program, there is much of the same happening. Junior Texas Basketball manager Evan Just has seen what the student-athletes commit each day.
“They spend 5 to 6 hours a day in the gym whether its lifting weights, watching film or just getting shots up,” Just said. “They all love the game so much though, that it’s all fun for them, but it comes down to them committing a lot of time for basketball and then finding time to complete their homework.”
Naggar wrapped up the conversation saying he has about a six-hour window during the day where he doesn't get to do what normal students would get to do.
There was no scheduled practice for that day; however, there was a sense of readiness to wrap things up looming in the air. Looking up at the clock, the small hand had just struck 2:00 p.m. It was time to go.
It was unnecessary to ask where he was headed next. Whether it be to catch up on much-needed sleep, meet with a professor, or get some work in on the field, Chris Naggar is living the life of an athlete-student, not a student-athlete.