Athletes at UM working to find balance with their academic lives as students

Posted December 20, 2017


“Academics are a top priority for the University of Miami Athletics Department,” according to the code of conduct of the student-athlete handbook.

Sometimes, this statement truly fits and sometimes the reality is far from it.

Michael Imeokparia, athletic academic advisor and mentor coordinator at UM, recognizes that “while some students may be more focused on sports and the future they have in it, there are some students who are more focused on their academics than the sport they are involved in. Some students are just using their athletic ability to pay for school.”

Grace Rapp, from England, is a player of the UM soccer team. She practices every morning before going to class (Photo by Regina Sánchez Jiménez).

The situation within which student-athletes find themselves is not easy to reconcile nor summarize.

“I don’t think there is a priority between academics or competition. I think it really depends on your week. If you got a big game coming up you definitely got to schedule towards your academics… It can be hard challenging too together so you just have to know what is most important to you that day,” said Grace Rapp, a soccer player from England at UM.

Macarena Aguilera, an Argentine member of the UM golf team, said she has a clear priority.

“I think academics is my priority first because I came here for study… and if you don’t have a good grade you cannot play. Basically, my whole life was academics and after golf.”

But having sport or academics as a priority, the main problem combining both is the time management as Rapp, Aguilera and Imeokparia agree. That is why the Athletics Department established limitations to practices, no more than 20 hours a week, four hours a day. Athletes must have one day off per week during season. They must have no more than eight hours a week of practice, four hours a day, and must have two days off per week, out of season.

As a result, Aguilera practices every day from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and has workouts two times a week from 7 to 8 a.m., during season. She has the afternoon free to attend class. However, Rapp has two hours of practice beginning at 7 a.m., before she goes to class in the morning, and a game during the weekend when they are in season.

But Rapp said she would change one aspect of the program.

“Just an extra day off from traveling,” she said. “When we come back from traveling, let’s have the next day off completely rather than going straight back into training.”

Aguilera wouldn’t change anything, but she expressed the need of getting used to the program.

“We have nine tournaments in the spring … we are nine weeks out of the city… and sometimes we’re studying in the plane. We are talking to the teachers, we are studying at 4 a.m., we don’t sleep… sleep is not a word that we use that much … it’s complicated but you get used to it. You adapt to it or you die.”

Professors sometimes complain about this schedule since students attending class after training are tired and cannot do their best.

Grace Barnes, a motion pictures professor in the School of Communication, has had different experiences with student-athletes. While one student of the rowing team “was one of the strongest members of the class,” another student of the basketball team “missed many class sessions and did quite poorly in the class.”

In this second case, Barnes had to write to the Athletics Department to “express my outrage,” but there wasn’t any reply. She claims that student-athletes “have the same requirements, but get excused absences.”

Imeokparia argued that “they are just like every other student.”

In fact, the class attendance is mandatory for student-athletes and the Athletic Academic Service staff check it daily.  If one student performs four unexcused absences in a single class in a semester, he or she will be suspended from competition.

But not all the universities are so concerned about the academic commitment of their athletes. In 2015, the University of North Carolina offered a “no show” class for student-athletes, who obtained made up grades based on fake classes. And, at the same time, Syracuse University allowed academically ineligible athletes to compete. These cases and other 20 were investigated for academic fraud.

Finally, in October of this year, the NCAA decided not to punish UNC because it couldn’t be proved that the “no show” courses were designed and offered to benefit athletes alone. So, the courses didn’t violate the group rules, according to NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.

These scandals contribute to stereotyping student-athletes as unintelligent and unengaged, according to the “Pluralistic ignorance among student-athlete populations: a factor in academic under-performance,” research led by Daniel Oppenheimer, Sara Etchison, and Joshua Levine.

This study concluded that student-athletes have academic under-performance because they “report difficulties in developing meaningful social relationships outside of their sport and typically spend the majority of their social time with teammates.”

As a consequence, the culture surrounding sports can influence on their performance due to the pluralistic ignorance, “a psychological phenomenon in which the majority of group members hold private attitudes that differ from group norms. In order to fit in, individuals adopt public behaviors that align with the perceived norms,” as Miller and McFarland defined in their research, “When social comparison goes awry: The case of pluralistic ignorance.”

The study reflects that each student-athlete surveyed claims caring more about their academic achievement on a 10-point scale (9.09) than what they perceive the average student-athlete (7.2) and their own teammates (7.79) do. Likewise, the importance that they give to their academics (9.09) is higher than the athletic importance (8.50). And they perceive that teammates (8.80) and average student-athlete (8.46) value athletics more than academics.

So, if each student-athlete said what he or she really thinks, the pluralistic ignorance wouldn’t exist and they could perform as ordinary students.

Macarena Aguilera spends nine weeks out of the university during golf season. | Photo by: Regina Sánchez Jiménez

But Imeokparia rejects the idea of this is currently happening at UM.

“Contrary to popular belief, student-athletes graduate at a higher rate and achieve better than the general study body,” he stated.

The statistics prove that he is right. The student-athletes graduation success rate (GSR) at UM is 90 percent. A rate above the national average that NCAA places in 84 percent.

The teams with a 100 percent GSR are the men’s diving and women’s golf teams for the 12th consecutive year, the women’s volleyball team for the sixth consecutive season and the women soccer team for the first time since 2007.

The GSR of the men’s basketball and the football teams are still above the average but with lower rates, 91 percent and 86 percent respectively.

Perhaps this is thanks to the awards program that UM has developed for student-athletes that Aguilera described as competitive, too.

“We have like a bet with tennis of who is the team that has better GPA because you get an award. Every time that you get more than 3.5 you get a shirt and the one with the best GPA gets thrown a party,” she explained.

Rapp and Aguilera agree about the commitment in academics of their teammates that matches with the study about how student-athletes perceive their teammates.

“What’s their priority at the end of the day? Soccer,” claimed Rapp, adding, “we definitely have some bright kids on the team who don’t struggle at all, but I’d say the majority of them are like me and find it quite tough.”

“Everyone has the dream to turn pro in our team. But you never know… how many things can happen in four years,” Aguilera said.

Priorities and importance given to academics and sports depend on each student-athlete, but the truth is that there is still negative connotation about the intelligence or engagement with academics of student-athletes, even between teammates.

Even though, UM is living a different scenario, where athletes are getting good grades, better than general students, and where the Athletics Department is committed to encouraging the performance of their athletes through the development of support programs.