College football in the U.S. draws millions of fans each year, but we often fail to think about the academic experience of the players on the field. (Photo by Ben Stanfield)

As we enter the heart of another college football season in the U.S., millions of fans flock to stadiums and gather around televisions each Saturday. Sometimes forgotten in the hype and excitement that surrounds the sport is the fact that the players on the field not only are athletes, but also students who must devote a substantial portion of their time throughout the week to academics. As stated in the tagline of a memorable National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) branding campaign, “there are over 380,000 student-athletes, and most of us go pro in something other than sports.” In football, only about 1.5% of college players will go on to the NFL. Given this reality, it’s important for college athletes to gain meaningful value from their education to help them succeed in careers beyond sport. In fact, the NCAA’s rhetoric often reinforces the idea that the academic experience is of first and foremost importance for college athletes.

However, as anyone having a basic familiarity with college sports probably knows, numerous factors make it difficult for college athletes to take full advantage of their educational opportunities. For instance, college athletes are often placed under substantial time demands, as football players spend a median of 42 hours per week on their sport according to the NCAA’s own data. Additionally, at many universities, athletes are given special consideration in the admissions process, meaning that athletes often enter universities with academic qualifications well below those of the typical member of the student body. Following an academic probe that led to several football players being dismissed for cheating at the University of Notre Dame, Head Coach Brian Kelly commented that few of his players would be able to gain admission to the university if it were not for their athletic talents:

I think we recognized that all of my football players are [academically] at risk. All of them, really. Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now, with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.

As a result of such conditions, a substantial body of research has found that college athletes are often “clustered” into certain academic majors. Former NBA and Duke University basketball star Shane Battier recently suggested it’s “hardly a secret” that college athletes are often guided toward “easy” classes in the least demanding majors. For instance, 58 out of 74 scholarship football players at the University of Michigan who identified an academic major were in “general studies” during the 2004 season, and 87 of the 176 total students enrolled in general studies were Michigan athletes. Traditionally, researchers have defined such “clustering” to exist when 25% of more of the members of a particular team are pursuing the same academic major. Prior research has found clustering to be rather commonplace in football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball (see here for a recent summary).

Building on this research, my colleagues Jim Watkins, Seungmo Kim, and I sought to investigate the extent to which college football players are not only overrepresented (aka “clustered”) in certain academic majors, but also identify majors in which they are underrepresented in comparison to the student body as a whole. Additionally, given the practice of special admissions for athletes mentioned earlier, we also compared universities with highly-selective admissions standards to those with less selective standards. In our study, which was recently published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, we found that football players were most frequently overrepresented in majors in the areas of “social sciences”, “communication, journalism, & related programs”, “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies”, “liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities”, and “multi/interdisciplinary studies”. In contrast, compared to the general student body, players were most frequently underrepresented in engineering majors. Ideally, being aware of the academic areas in which college athletes are over- and underrepresented can help administrators and other decision makers think about the constraints that may prevent athletes from having a more fully meaningful educational experience. For example, if the time demands of athletics prevent college athletes from pursuing majors in fields like engineering, this could inform efforts to reform college sports. On the other hand, if scheduling conflicts are causing difficulties (i.e., certain courses are only available during practice times), university officials might work with athletic administrators in an effort to address such conflicts.

With respect to admissions standards, we found that the distribution of academic majors for football players differed from that of the general student body at almost all institutions. However, the frequency of discrepancies between football players and general students was greater at institutions with more highly-selective admissions standards. The fact that particular academic challenges might arise at more highly-selective institutions is not surprising given the aforementioned situation described by Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly. If a university admits athletes with qualifications that are below those of typical students at the university, then places substantial sport-related time demands upon those athletes, it seems likely they may face unique challenges in their academic pursuits.

Ultimately, the results of this research lead us to suggest that many college athletes may not be gaining a full, meaningful educational experience that is comparable to that of their non-athlete peers. Notably, this may be a particular concern at more highly-selective institutions with big-time football programs. To the extent that sports participation prevents or discourages athletes from pursuing the full range of academic programs offered at a university, this raises important questions for athletics administrators and university officials to consider.

Adam Love is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research examines ways in which sport programs and organizations can operate in a more ethical, just, open, democratic, and accessible way. You can find him on Twitter @AdamWLove