I'll apologize up front for another blog inspired by circumstance. The last one was about the holidays; this one is about athletics and college. Actually, this was inspired by a holiday of sorts: the Super Bowl. I won't expound on how this event borders on being a religious holiday, but it definitely shows how great a role sport plays in our society. As if we needed further confirmation, we can point to the just-completed 2014 Olympics, or the upcoming "March Madness."
The last spectacle hits close to home for those of us in academics, as it exemplifies the intertwining of college and athletics. Now if you're expecting a rant about how this is an abomination, I'm going to disappoint you. Certainly there are troubling trends, such as excessive resources being diverted to athletics, universities becoming farm systems for professional leagues, or athletes in college who are not academically qualified. Yet the reality is that the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon; thus, we need to be ready to deal with it.
Unfortunately, it is something for which many of us are ill-prepared. As a rule, our academic studies do not address it. Furthermore, many academics have a certain aversion to sports that often evolves to condescension. On the other hand, admittedly some are guilty of athletic "hero-worship." Obviously, neither extreme will serve well as we deal with student-athletes in our courses. While they will never represent a majority in our classes, they will be there—and they pose some challenges as well as opportunities.
In general, we are aware of the challenges. Athletics demands much of participants in terms of time, priorities, and attention. Practically speaking, even student-athletes who have their priorities straight face scheduling conflicts in the form of contests and travel. Missed classes equal missed learning opportunities, which undermines academic performance; there are also such practical hassles as make-up exams. Of course, some have their priorities confused; they see themselves as athletes, not students.
Yet there are oft-overlooked opportunities. Consider this: unlike many of your students, student-athletes have someone close by with a vested interest in their academic performance. To put it simply, their coaches need them eligible to perform. We've all heard horror stories about coaches pressuring faculty to change grades, or having tutors take exams for athletes. In general, though, much of the pressure from coaches is on the athletes to perform in class. Furthermore, athletes have to meet actual benchmarks to remain eligible (e.g. a minimum GPA). In my experience, I've had more trouble with students in other extracurricular activities who don't have to worry about a minimum GPA to be eligible to perform. In sum, you have advantages in working with athletes that do not exist with other students.
Here are some general suggestions as to how to deal with athletics in a college setting. First and foremost, know your institutional context. I recently had young colleagues who were very confused about what accommodations they had to make for athletes who missed class. I arranged a group meeting with the assistant athletic director. He addressed specific policies, but also emphasized that the athletic department prioritized academics over athletics. He noted that our institution is a member of the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which differs from the NCAA in a number of ways when it comes to academics and athletics. For my younger colleagues, most of whom came from NCAA division I institutions, this was a revelation. They had assumed that all athletic programs were alike; they came out of the meeting with a better idea of how to deal with athletes.
You can get to know your institutional context by asking some basic questions. What is the athletic program at your institution like? What are the institution's policies vis-à-vis athletics? What are the athletic program's academic resources, policies and practices? What expectations are placed on you when it comes to class absences, make-up work, etc.? Having answers to these questions will make you better equipped as an instructor. Furthermore, look to develop a working relationship with the appropriate members of the athletic department. In my case, being at a smaller institution, many of our coaches teach classes and are easily accessible. If I have an issue with an athlete, I can track down his or her coach by the end of the day. In no instance have I ever had a coach fail to back me up when I've had an academic issue with an athlete. In fact, coaches have proven very helpful because they have leverage with athletes that I don't. After all, I can't make them run laps at 6 in the morning). The situation will be different at each institution, but likely you have options.
The second suggestion is to know the student-athlete. Here, the need to avoid stereotyping is imperative. Don't presume that the individual is going to act and perform a certain way in your class. Engage them as you would other students; avoid antagonism or hero-worship. Make it clear to them what they can expect of you, and what you expect of them. You can show interest in their extracurricular activities, but don't feel obligated to fake it; they'll respect you more when you are "real" with them in this regard.
My final suggestion is to consider how to engage all students in light of our experiences with student-athletes. My institution recently started to develop more rigorous academic standards for a number of extracurricular programs. These standards were modeled on the existing ones developed by our athletic program. We got to this point, though, only by recognizing that athletics are not merely something we have to deal with. They are part of our academic culture and can contribute much to it if we carefully consider how we can leverage the opportunities.