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The Academic Athlete


Around two percent of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships for college. While many dream, very few become professional athletes.

Bo Calhoun gripped the familiar leather of the basketball. Fingertips pressing hard into its material, he looked across the court. He panned, desperate for a team player to be open. Desperate to get the six-foot-something men out of his face. Desperate to impress the man intently staring at him from across the court.

The ball was clenched between his palms. He had no option but to take it down the court. With each dribble, the Ball State University basketball representative took note – the agility, the movements, the strategy. Bo wasn’t just playing basketball. He was selling himself.

He was a product: male high school senior basketball player who could be an asset to a university team. Just one percent of high school men’s basketball players go on to play at a Division I school like Ball State. If the deal was made, it would completely change his life. He remembered his mom telling him that college just wasn’t an option for him. She couldn’t afford it. He was told he would have to work after high school if he wanted a chance to get a degree. Bo, now a Ball State senior and basketball player, is more focused on where basketball can take him than where his prospected degree can.

The CBS Sports NBA Top Draft Prospect rankings places a Louisiana State freshman as the No. 1 draft pick. And he is not alone. The top four draft picks with years listed are all freshmen. Like Bo, many of these fresh-out-of-high-school student athletes use college as a means to be considered to play professionally. Many go professional before graduating. Bo said he understands making sports a priority over academics.

Bo was awarded a full ride to Ball State, which pays for all four years of tuition plus room, board, and books. This allows him to work toward a degree while playing on the team. His whole life he wanted to go to college to play basketball. Like the freshmen on the draft rankings, Bo also hopes to one day make a career out of the game.

He has been in contact with agents to set something up after he graduates, even if that means playing overseas.

“It obviously makes me nervous. If I don’t go pro, it will hurt because I want to try and maximize my potential,” he said.

But the likelihood of him playing professionally in the NBA is miniscule. With 18,320 participants in men’s college basketball and 60 draft slots, his chances of stepping on an NBA court are 1.2 percent.

The chances to play professional softball are even lower. Carolyn Wilmes, a sophomore pitcher for Ball State softball, plays on a partial scholarship. In a sports data visualization analysis, sports analyst Ryan Sleeper calculated that one in 1,484 college softball players are drafted into the NPF, or National Pro Fastpitch. Carolyn said that even with the slim chances, playing professionally really isn’t worth it to her.

“Going pro for softball is nothing. It’s a great honor, but you don’t get paid much. It’s not really a job. It’s more like a summer thing.” According to the National Pro Fastpitch website, professional softball players make approximately $5,000-$6,000 for a playing season. “I guess you could live off of that, but it’s just not likely,” she said.

Aly Kohanowski, a sophomore soccer player, was awarded half of her tuition when she committed to Ball State’s team. She, like Carolyn, has no ambition to make a career of her sport. Aly said that this is the general mindset of her team. She said she knows of only one girl who wants to play professionally. Perhaps that player will be the one in 986 that were analyzed to have the chance to be drafted into the National Women’s Soccer League.

Both Aly and Carolyn said they instead see their sport as a means to be able to attend school for cheaper. When it comes to sports or education, they focus more on their education, unlike Bo, who said he cares more about basketball. All three student-athletes plan to graduate in the usual four years.

NCAA’s research shows that 84 percent of Division I NCAA athletes earn their college degree.

One reason for this is the academic standards set by the NCAA. All athletes are required to keep a 2.0 GPA, according to Pat Quinn, the Ball State deputy athletics director for internal affairs. Teams require different proof of academic commitment, such as study hours. Bo highlighted that he must complete eight study hours per week. He said that these hours depend on each student’s GPA. The higher it is, the fewer study hours required, maybe even none.

The NCAA states that an in-season player can only participate in athletically-related activities for a maximum of 20 hours per week, four per day. This, however, does not include other time commitments like recruiting activities or even traveling to away games. A legal issues sports reporter for Forbes stated that a typical Division I college player will devote 43.3 hours a week to the sport.

Once at an away game, Bo found himself scrambling to electronically turn in an assignment for class. It was due at midnight. He looked at the clock: 11:30 p.m. Staying at an unfamiliar hotel, he tried to connect to every wireless internet option available. None were titled with the name of his hotel. Asking around, he realized his teammates were having the same issue. The hotel did not have a wireless internet option. With no other choice, Bo had to email his professor on his phone using cellular data. He typed up an apology he was used to giving: “Sorry, I just can’t get this assignment in.”

Bo said that professors give student athletes leeway on assignments and will work with them on their grades. Pat explained that this is because of good communication between athletic and academic departments.

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Senior basketball player Bo Calhoun says his sport is a priority for him over school. But many times traveling for basketball conflicts with his ability to finish schoolwork.

Even with professors being more flexible with deadlines for student athletes, some can’t make the 2.0 GPA. They are often benched in result.

Carolyn said she has seen this in friends of hers. She called it selfish of the players to let their academics fall behind, ultimately hurting the team.

Carolyn said she doesn’t understand how student athletes can fall behind, mentioning that she knows pre-med student athletes with 4.0s. A study by the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics stated that male and female student athletes on scholarships were found to have significantly higher GPAs than non-scholarship student athletes at the institution where they studied.

So balancing being a student and an athlete is do-able. Pat said that he finds a lot of Ball State’s student athletes manage this well. However, Pat said he has seen many athletes unable to balance the two, a lot of them eventually choosing to give up the sport to focus on academics.

“I had an athlete last week that was in her third year,” he said. “She was a nursing student and she just reached a point in her life where she had to give up her sport to focus on the academic demands of the nursing program. So it does happen.”

Some people feel there should be a higher incentive for the athletes. This thought is especially common in sports like basketball and football. Players at Northwestern University petitioned to the Labor Relations Board Association to create a union. Essentially, they wanted to be employees.The NCAA makes nearly $11 billion in revenue from college sports. Some teams that make it to the NCAA Championship are out of class for an estimated 17 days. The players would essentially miss 24.2 percent of the spring semester. These students are working and making money for their universities while missing a large chunk of their classes.

The NCAA passed legislation this year that allows student-athletes to receive additional money to cover cost of attendance. Athletes on full grants receive a monthly stipend of $400. This means athletes are paid $3,200 total each year in addition to their tuition, room and board, and books being paid for. Ball State was one of the first MAC schools to start implementing the stipends. Only a few other MAC schools provide cost of attendance money to every scholarship athlete. In total, Ball State had to use around $800,000 to provide the additional scholarships.

Many argue that the opportunity to play a sport in order to attend school with little to no tuition cost is payment. Aly said her soccer coach has told her that the opportunity of a scholarship certainly isn’t one to take lightly.

“Our coach stresses to us everyday that if we’re coming to practice, it is our job. We’re going to practice and we’re getting paid to go to school. It’s covering our tuition, it’s covering everything,” she said. The amount of money given to a player varies based on athletic performance and from sport to sport.

Pat explained that there are a couple of reasons for this. First, basketball receives most of its money from donors. While the NCAA Divisions I and II provide schools with more than $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships, they decide which sport that goes to. An example is baseball, Pat said.

“The baseball team is only allowed to have 11.7 scholarships,” he explained. “If you’ve got a 35-man baseball roster and 11.7 scholarships, the numbers are pretty easy. If you look out on the baseball field today, I can tell you that only one baseball player has a full ride scholarship.”

Pat explained that the NCAA provides less money for sports like baseball simply because they do not generate as much revenue as sports like football, men’s basketball, or women’s basketball. Pat said that the NCAA provides supplemental money based on the number of scholarships a team gives and the number of spots on that team.

Considering the number of spots on a team, men’s basketball receives 13 scholarships, but usually has 13-15 guys on the roster. Football receives 85 to cover its large number of players. Baseball’s number does not increase for its roster.

Nor does the number of scholarships increase if the sport is winning. Bo recounts a time a friend of his on the softball team came to him frustrated about this. Ball State’s softball team is a winning program. Bo even said that softball has had a more successful couple of years than basketball has had in many. Yet basketball still receives more funding.

A team’s success doesn’t necessarily contribute to how much money that sport will be given. However, a winning team can provide money by an increase in ticket sales. Speaking directly of the basketball team’s ranking of No. 3 in turnaround for the year, Pat said, “You can’t put a price tag on how their success will impact the number of contributions we’re going to get next year.”

Individual donations provide the most funding for basketball scholarships.The main reason basketball has more money to give is because it receives more money; simple as that. Bo believes this is because basketball, like football, is a widely popular sport.

A successful season doesn’t necessarily mean more scholarship money for the program. And receiving an athletic scholarship doesn’t mean an athlete will go on to play professionally–it is rare. But the chances of either increase with the public popularity of the sport, meaning many times successful but non-money-making sports are cut. And football and basketball–the money-makers, the business models, the topics of public conversation–are receiving more scholarship money.

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