Let Athletes Be Students

When I think back on my college experience, of course, some of the first memories that pop into my mind are on the basketball court.

I’ll start reflecting on the intense practices, emotional victories in front of the Cameron Crazies and the experience of cutting down the nets after winning a national championship in the Metrodome.

Those are some of my best memories from college. But they aren’t my only memories.

I also think about Wiffle ball.

Back in the day myself, Mike Dunleavy, Jay Williams and a few other guys on the team used to play Wiffle ball on the quad. It got pretty competitive. We drew some small crowds, I have no doubt they were impressed at my ability to hit the second floor windows of Wilson dormitory. We had some game. In the fall, before the season started, we were at the football tailgates and sitting in the student section.

During the basketball season, we were an elite athletic team that looked to go to the Final Four every year. But after the season was over Coach K would remind us, “Alright, don’t forget to be college kids. Hang out on the quad. Catch a baseball game. Experience it!” He’d have us do two one-hour workouts a week but beyond that, we were regular college kids. We’d hang out, grab pizza at 2 a.m. and then stay up the rest of the night trying to cram for a test the next day, like all of our dorm mates did weekly. Stupid (but ultimately important) stuff like that. And honestly, those are really some of my best memories from that time in my life.

A lot of things have changed since I was in school. Today, many student-athletes have schedules that budget their time down to the very last minute. Teams who are out of season have workouts that are “voluntary” in name only. The reality is that for a lot of student-athletes there is no off-season, and certainly no time for Wiffle ball. The reason for this is pretty clear. With so much money and so many jobs tied to the success of an athletic program, the athlete is often just treated as a proxy for a coach’s competency. If an athlete isn’t working on his game, then a coach must not be working him enough (or the coach is incompetent.) As a result, overscheduling is not just something that is afflicting suburban kids everywhere — it’s also affecting our college athletes as well.

More or less every person not directly employed by the NCAA will readily admit that there needs to be serious reforms made to college athletics. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the conversation usually gets, because saying you want reform is one thing, but once you start discussing the details, it gets murky and uncomfortable. But, hey, you don’t grow unless you are uncomfortable.

How can student-athletes be properly compensated for the value they bring a university? Should they be paid or are there appropriate alternatives? Which players then? Which sports? If a school doesn’t have the resources to provide payment, then what? And thinking broader, what does success look like given the current state of affairs? Is the current model sustainable? Should we start from scratch?

All of these are legitimate questions with no clear solutions. There are solid arguments on all sides of these issues.

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One metric for success the NCAA likes to tout is graduation rates and eligibility. In 2015, a report indicated that the Graduation Success Rate among student-athletes was 67%, two percentage points higher than the overall student rate.

On the surface, this is laudable, but when you examine it further, it doesn’t really paint a full picture of the outcomes that schools are providing for their student-athletes.

How many students found a job in their preferred field after graduation?

How many of them were guided into a major that they had a passion for while in school?

You hate to ask, but how many of those degrees were simply the path of least resistance?

And ultimately, what percentage of athletes felt prepared to take on the world once their eligibility was up and they no longer had advisors and coaches mapping out their lives?

While graduation rates are celebrated externally as a measure of success, the message many programs give to student-athletes is simple: Stay eligible and win. That’s success.

In order to do that, players will be registered in easy-A classes and the least demanding majors. This is hardly a secret. Just follow the premed students — they seem to have a keen nose for the classes that bolster GPA.

So, because it’s known that the actual academic support is sometimes questionable, people argue that college athletes should be paid. This is complicated not only for the reasons I listed above, but also, in a lot of ways, because it’s a Band-Aid solution.

If I had gotten paid $10,000 per season when I played for Duke, it would have been great. No complaining from me. I generated much more than this yearly for the NCAAs business partners, and on the surface it seems like a reasonable compensation. Maybe I could have had some slightly nicer clothes and put a down payment on a car. That stuff would have been awesome, but ultimately it would also have been temporary. It wouldn’t actually have been life-changing.

I’ve always thought that there are simple steps that programs can take to give their student-athletes better chances at success after college is over. And the tools to do so are right at their school’s disposal.

For starters, I do think that it’s essential to have student-athletes spend less time practicing their sport, and more time living the college experience and discovering what it means to be a productive member of society. You don’t necessarily learn these lessons in a classroom. You learn them navigating your group projects, interacting with your classmates and discovering what it takes to become an adult.  Producing a well-rounded human being should be one of the highest goals of our institutions of higher education. The first core value listed on the NCAA’s website states that the organization believes in and is committed to: “The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.”


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The real value of attending college isn’t just the degree that looks pretty sitting in a frame in your office, it’s also creating meaningful connections that pay dividends for your future. Any person in any industry can attest to how vital connections and networks are to progressing in a career.

I would argue that the true value of any degree is the alumni network that shares that same degree. The saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” is becoming more true every day. Networking matters. Maybe more than ever. For the most part, alumni networks strictly benefit the universities and athletic program budgets that inspire them. But what if universities began leveraging alumni networks for the benefit of the athletes. I’m talking about programs that match up athletes with alumni capable of providing genuine mentorship, networking opportunities and internships. That’s the kind of thing that will actually give student-athletes practical directions in careers outside of their sports.

Now, I can probably guess your reservations about this idea. You might be envisioning no-show jobs and $200 handshakes. That’s how the booster-athlete relationship is often portrayed. I even hate the term booster. The connotations are so negative. But this fear of improper benefits — which still occur despite current rules — does the athlete a huge disservice. Because a dinner with an expert in the field you hope to go into is truly life-changing. It provides a young person with guidance that can help them once they’re on their own, without the help of an army of academic advisors. The concern over a college kid getting steak dinner bought for them shouldn’t outweigh the concern over them leaving school with more uncertainty about their future than when they arrived.

Schools being proactive about setting up meetings and whiteboard sessions between their student-athletes and alumni is a simple — and free — way to increase the value of a college education.

I think setting up such an arrangement would ultimately pay dividends in terms of graduation rates because athletes won’t just be working towards a degree. They’ll actually have an idea of what their degrees mean, and who they can call once they get them. As the founder of the Shane Battier Take Charge Foundation, I deal directly with the issues surrounding the gap in educational opportunities and access in our underserved areas. The No. 1 reason why minorities in economically depressed areas give up their pursuit of college degrees is not because of finances or support. We have found that those who abandon the path of a college degree do so because they simply do not see the value and implications of earning a degree. It is an inspiration problem. Supplying inspiration by showing college athletes what is possible will not solve the issue of graduation rates by itself (especially with minority students) but it’d be a hell of a place to start.

Of course, setting up a program such as this would mean that schools would need to budget the time for student-athletes to pursue such opportunities. They’d have to put in the work to learn what the student is actually interested in outside of their sport, and design opportunities based on what they find out. But what if that became a top selling point for a coach/school when talking to high school prospects. It would be worth the effort for both the students and the university to pursue such a course.

Right now, universities are pitched to regular students and student-athletes alike basically as, If you come here, you’re set for life. But ultimately, that’s a stretch. Anybody who has attended college knows that what you do with your life isn’t determined by where you go, but what you do, how you go about it, who you meet while you’re doing it and how you foster those relationships.

That is why I think the alumni base should be utilized more as an added benefit for student-athletes. It would be a way to recruit kids not just based on top coaches, trainers and facilities, but also because of the potential to have relationships facilitated with a rich alumni network that will set the student up for success in their post-career. Every school has an area of expertise — an industry they are proud to trumpet.

If athletes don’t show passion for topics outside of their sports, then that is on them, and that’s fine. It has been my experience that there are more athletes that are interested in preparing for life after college to create a fulfilling successful life for themselves. The NCAA likes to parade the number of athletes who don’t play in the professional ranks and its numbers are spot-on. Let’s use the unbelievably strong resources of our universities: their networks. Universities have the tools at their disposal to make this happen. It just takes a little bit of creative thinking, and a willingness to place importance on something less tangible than a transcript.

We’re in a different economy now. A degree does not equal success. So it’s on the college programs to stop selling that myth and to be more proactive about ensuring their athletes find success after they graduate. That doesn’t mean paying their athletes while they’re in school. It means making sure somebody else does for many years after they graduate.

On October 24, Shane will be speaking on a panel for the Knight Commission, an organization whose mission is to advocate that college sports programs operate within the educational mission of their schools. You can learn more about the Knight Commission by visiting www.knightcommision.com