Student Athletes Caught between Business of College Sports and Educational Mission of Universities

Study by UCR researchers highlights a culture that promotes students’ focus on athletics and may jeopardize their academic futures

An image of an American football and some college notebooks.

A study by UCR researchers raises questions about the role athletic organizations play in helping student athletes negotiate their dual identities.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Colleges with high-profile athletics programs say they reinforce to players the importance of balancing their lives as students and athletes, but the reality may be a system that focuses on sports at the expense of academics, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

Forthcoming in The Journal of Higher Education, the study by Uma Jayakumar and Eddie Comeaux from UCR’s Graduate School of Education, examined the role of organizational culture in shaping the lives of college athletes as they negotiate their dual roles as both students and players.

In the study, titled ‘The Cultural Cover Up of College Athletics: How Organizational Culture Perpetuates an Unrealistic and Idealized Balancing Act,’ the researchers conducted field observations and in-depth interviews with athletes, coaches and other stakeholders in intercollegiate athletics at a top Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) public university. The study highlights the challenges faced by college athletes in revenue-generating sports, and sheds light on a popular narrative that blames players for low graduation rates. It is likely that this narrative exists at other big-time athletic programs considering the growing public commentary on tensions between academics and athletics goals.

From the start of their college careers, athletes described a scenario where sports were prioritized over academics—despite what they were told verbally. One of the key interviewees, a former star football player who was given the pseudonym Chaz, shared his experience as a new recruit:

“They talk about how academics are a priority; you are here for an education. You hear it. But when you show up you are herded into a room to take your physical, they are weighing you, they’re seeing how tall you are, poking at you, trying to feel around for injuries. You get the feeling that you are like cattle to them, but that’s just the name of the game, I guess,” Chaz said. “Then, for the next couple of weeks it’s just football—I played in three big games before I saw an actual college classroom.”

A key finding was the organization’s suggestion that students were responsible for their athletic successes—if they worked hard enough they could reach pro level—and that academics were the ‘easy part’ for which they would receive extensive support. In reality, 45 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision School football players do not receive college degrees.

Eddie Comeaux, associate professor of higher education.

Eddie Comeaux, associate professor of higher education.

“If the coach, the media, and everyone else around you are saying ‘you can play pro football if you work hard enough,’ then of course you’re going to put more effort into athletics over academics,” said Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education and a former college athlete. “But this masks the reality, which is that obtaining a college degree is much more likely than reaching sporting success at a national level, and a much better guarantee of future success.”

During orientation, the head football coach emphasized to recruits the importance of getting an education, referring to sports as the “second reason” someone would choose to attend college. At face value, athletes were supported academically—with tutoring sessions, study halls and the constantly reinforced notion that they could excel both in the classroom and on the field. But with players spending upward of 40 hours each week in sport-related activities, many said they struggled academically. One noted, “I don’t care what they say, you are just too worn out to study as much as you need to.”

The dual student/athlete role presented at orientation also shifted as players progressed in the program, with the head football coach acknowledging the ideal student is “one who wants to get an education and better himself. And it doesn’t mean he’s going to get an A. It might mean he’s going to get a C.” Another interviewee recalled a coach telling an academic advisor to “make sure [the athlete] stays eligible” to play, without recognizing academic success as a goal in and of itself.

Jayakumar said the research raises questions about the role athletic organizations play in helping athletes negotiate their dual identities and securing their academic success.

“The perception is that athletes underperform because they have poor time management or underdeveloped study skills, but at the end of the day, these individuals are filling the shoes of two people at the same time. While there is always going to be a natural focus on athletics, that shouldn’t be at the expense of their academic futures,” she said.

Jayakumar and Comeaux discuss a number of recommendations to improve the culture of an athletic department, including hiring, training, and incentivizing athletic leaders who engage in practices that are consistent with the mission and values of the broader academic community.

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