The Unknown Success of Student Athletes

The first term I attended Portland State, I was rather impressed with what it had to offer. I thought that the students were a great change of pace from Mt. Hood Community College where I had previously attended, and was pleased with the challenge that came with higher-level courses. However, almost the first day of class, I found that there was a general resentment toward both the sports program and its athletes.

Up until that point I never paid much attention to college ball, but the various comments took me by surprise and made me take a closer look at what they had to say.

I heard my fellow classmates accuse professors of simply giving passing grades away to student athletes, or express the sentiment that most didn’t actually do any work in their classes. There were even some students accusing both the coaches and administration of putting pressure on the faculty to make sure that athletes pass their classes.

The general consensus was that students who played for PSU only cared about their sport, and little for their education. Honestly concerned about this possible issue, I decided to look into what student athletes were really doing with their time.

The first thing I wanted to know was how the average GPA of student athletes compared to the PSU student average. If professors were simply handing out “passing grades” to athletes, then their GPA should reflect something around a 2.5 to around a 2.75 (which is about a C+ average).

According to the athletics department, this past winter term the athletes averaged out at about a 3.09, which is comparable to the 3.11 GPA of the average PSU student as of the 2013 school year. In fact, according to Athletics Director Torre Chisolm, the student athlete GPA “has historically been a little higher than campus average.” Higher than average, not lower.

This surprising fact made me realize that these players were not just passing their courses, they were actually maintaining over a B average. Still not totally convinced, I decided to look into what kind of requirements student athletes had to maintain while playing a sport.

“Grades are important to the coaches because they want us to succeed not only on the field, but in the classroom,” said Ariana Cooley, a junior soccer player. “We have mandatory progress reports that we have to turn in to our coaches twice a term to make sure that we are on track.”

She went on to explain that professors have to fill out a number of different questions to track the progress of each student athlete in their class. They even go as far as to let the coaches know what the student should be doing differently to succeed better.

Athletes are also required to not only meet with their departmental adviser each term, but also an adviser within the athletics department as well. Cooley said, “[The adviser] makes sure that I am following the NCAA rules so that I can participate in the sport I love. We have mandatory meetings with him to make sure that we [are] in the right classes and [are] keeping up with our grades.”

While I was sure that there was some kind of check-up of grades, I had no idea that athletes were required to submit multiple progress reports and meet with multiple advisers. And while it seems like the department as a whole is interested in the educational success of their students, their coaches are as well.

“In the beginning of each school year, my coach reinforces his belief that school comes before tennis with the team,” tennis player Megan Govi said. “He encourages us to help one another and check up on one another in our schooling. There is not a great need for him to check our grades because we are studious pupils. Our team GPA was around a 3.8 last term.” Govi herself is sporting a whopping 3.92 GPA and has been playing sports throughout her entire college career.

So while it seemed like the grades were by no means just given away, I wanted to know if teachers had ever treated any athletes differently because they happen to be playing sports at the time they were attending class.

When I asked freshman football player Austin Powell if he thought his professors treated him differently, he said, “sometimes.” He said that most of the time he didn’t see any kind of treatment difference from his professors, but that if he did see anything change it was often a manifestation of some kind of negative bias they had with student athletes.

“Some professors have stereotypes with negative connotations attached to football players that are deeply rooted in their DNA. When that is the case, it is almost impossible to remain completely neutral until they get to know you.”

“When we always have to run to practice or travel to a game, our teachers know and usually help us if we are willing to repay their efforts by giving 100 percent in that class,” said Justin Outslay, Powell’s roomate and fellow football player.

When I asked how the two of them were doing in school, they shocked me by saying that the average GPA between the two of them was 3.93. Outslay also said that he has a tremendous support system around him, and felt that he owed much of his success to other people.

“My goal,” he continued, “is to prove that not all student athletes are ‘dumb jocks,’ and most of us are actually very intelligent and work tremendously hard on and off the field.”

So it didn’t seem like professors were giving any kind of preferred treatment to student athletes. In fact, some found that professors showed almost no leeway in terms of allowing them to make up any missed work because of practice or games. These students appeared to have worked incredibly hard to make sure they were successful both on the field and in the classroom, and didn’t appear to have any overarching help from administration.

Toward the end of the conversation I had with Govi we talked about how crazy it can sometimes get managing her social life, high grades and athletics. She said, “Like any art form, sports have taught me the true essence of focus and concentration until mastery. Thus, the brutality and mindfulness of sport have greatly assisted my mindfulness towards schoolwork, making me a better student. My education has never been given away. In fact, I enjoy school and the chance to learn something new in every course.”

Govi’s beautiful description of how sports have given her the skills it takes to master other elements in her life convinced me that there are indeed students who not only work hard for high grades, but truly deserve them.