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Athletes balance sports, studies

Katie Perry | Monday, October 3, 2005

Imagine holding two full-time jobs – working a long, hard day at a primary job then heading straight to a second eight-hour shift.

In many respects, this scenario is analogous to the demanding life of a collegiate student-athlete at Notre Dame.

The University was only one of three schools to crack the top 20 on both the 2006 US News & World Report list of America’s Best Colleges and the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Director’s Cup rankings released last June.

Joining Stanford and Duke in this class, Notre Dame – which ranked No. 18 on the academic list and No. 16 on the athletic – is one of only a small number of schools that has achieved excellence in both scholarship and sports. The weight of this feat is largely borne by Notre Dame’s student-athletes.

A balancing act

Unlike most college students, who ideally have one main focus – their schoolwork – student-athletes must grapple with two.

Third-year law student Bobby Brown, who serves as student representative on the Faculty Board of Athletics (FBA) said the University generally appeals to prospective students who have the ability to handle classes in addition to competition.

“I believe that ND attracts the type of athletes that are willing, able and anxious to take on the multiple roles,” he said.

Senior Erika Bohn, starting goalkeeper for the nationally-ranked women’s soccer team, was named the 2005 Preseason Big East Goalkeeper of the Year. She was also a Collegiate Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) First Team Academic All-American in 2004 and earned a 3.74 GPA her junior year.

Bohn found success both on and off the playing field – but not without some struggle.

“I think in many ways college life is more difficult for student-athletes … because we have so many roles to fulfill,” she said.

“‘Student’ comes first in the title student-athlete, so we definitely have to stay on top of our grades. Being an athlete on top of this can be difficult because not only do we have to perform on the athletic field, but we also represent the school so we have to be careful of what type of image is being portrayed.”

Junior swimmer Tim Kegelman – who holds Notre Dame records in the 100-butterfly and the 200-individual medley – agreed that the life of a student-athlete is often challenging.

“At times, it is more difficult [to be a student-athlete], but the main thing is that it’s just different,” he said. “You have to like what you’re doing to be motivated enough to dedicate the time for both school and athletics … There’s a balance there you have to achieve so you can excel at both while still enjoying the time you have [in college].”

Kegelman, like Bohn, has achieved academically as well as athletically. Last year as a sophomore the standout made the College Swim Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) Academic All-American team and was named a Big East Academic All-star.

“[Performing well in school and at a varsity sport is] something you just have to get through one step at a time, and when you look back at the bigger picture, it’s something to be proud of,” Kegelman said. “Notre Dame is the highest level of both academics and athletics. That’s part of why Notre Dame is so unique.”

Bohn said although there are times when she feels overwhelmed, the overall rewards of her academic and athletic endeavors are “great.”

“I’m going to leave here with a degree from one of the top universities,” she said. “And on the athletic side, all of my hard work has been rewarded in the greatest ways – being part of a great team and winning a national championship. I think the two worlds [of academics and athletics] can definitely coexist as long as you can manage both sides and work hard at both.”

Brown said he does not feel most student-athletes on campus feel overwhelmed.

“They thrive at both [academics and athletics] and enjoy doing it,” he said. “The ability to deal with athletic and academic pressures might be the reason so many ND athletes go on to unlimited success beyond graduation.”

Setting the standard

Last March, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) introduced a new set of guidelines for major Division I sports programs to keep student-athletics scholastically on track for a degree. The Academic Progress Rate (APR) – which will go into effect December 2005 – will penalize schools unable to retain athletes.

The APR point system requires a school to score 925 or higher out of a possible 1,000 to avoid penalty from the NCAA. Each player begins with a worth of two points. If the student-athlete stays in school and maintains an adequate GPA, they lose no points. If a player’s GPA drops below a certain level or if he or she departs school early, one point is lost. Two points are deducted if both scenarios occur. Points for each athlete are tallied and added to a team total, which is then divided by the total number of points possible and multiplied by 1,000.

Once the plan is implemented, penalties will go into effect immediately, and no school will be exempted unless it applies for a waiver. A March report on the PBS program NewsHour with Jim Lehrer said more than half of the 328 Division I schools affected by the plan would have failed under the APR standards last year.

Tex Dutile, who serves as FBA Chair and NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative, said he is a proponent of the new standards.

“I fully support this reform – too many schools have used student-athletes for athletics achievement without their having a realistic chance to graduate,” he said. “Happily, as last year’s APR scores indicated, Notre Dame will most likely never get penalized for an APR failure.”

A March statement released on the official Notre Dame athletics Web site said the University’s collegiate sports programs more than met the new NCAA standards.

The statement said all 22 programs “exceeded” the not-yet-implemented APR. Notre Dame’s overall score was 979 – 35 points higher than the national average for Division I sports programs. The University also boasted the third highest percentage of teams with perfect scores, as 13 Irish teams earned 1,000 points.

Results could have been even better. The statement also said Notre Dame’s overall APR would be higher if the University used solely the NCAA standards instead of its own, more “stringent” guidelines for student-athletes – for example, releasing the academic records of student-athletes every semester instead of the once-per-year requirement imposed by the NCAA. If Notre Dame abandoned its tougher policy, the overall APR would have been 990, the statement said.

Above and beyond

Dutile said the University “asks a lot from its student athletes,” who must adhere to guidelines mandated by the FBA. Launched in 1898, the 15-member panel dedicates itself to the goal of “maintaining that delicate but critical balance between the academic and the athletic at an institution that aspires to excellence in each.”

The board’s mission catalogs such obligations as promoting academic as well as athletic excellence, reviewing admissions data, tracking academic performance and serving as an official liaison between faculty members and the athletics department.

In conformity with Notre Dame’s strong academic tradition, the FBA holds high academic expectations for its student-athletes. Because prospects are only admitted to the University if they “demonstrate the capacity to earn a degree,” the FBA expects all student-athletes to maintain the necessary number of courses and GPA needed to graduate.

Kegelman said the biggest challenge in the dual role of student-athlete is time management.

“There are times before big tests and when assignments are due that gets you wondering where the time is going to come from,” he said. “You can’t stay up all night studying and then wake up for 6 a.m. practice.”

Dutile said student-athletes must manage their time and effort in order to give their studies – as well as their sports – the necessary attention.

But despite its high standards, the board recognizes the rigors of being a student-athlete and consequently provides support services required to meet these demands.

“Notre Dame provides outstanding support for our student-athletes, not only through the help available to all students, but also through the Office of Academic Services for Student-Athletes,” Dutile said.

Student-athletes are provided with counselors who are regularly available to help foster effective study habits, enforce time management skills and monitor academic performance. Tutors are also accessible to assist student-athletes.

Academic Services for Student-Athletes Director and FBA member Pat Holmes said academic success is ultimately the responsibility of the student-athletes.

“Our job is to not only support, but also to challenge,” he said. “We want to develop both the student and the athletic side and maximize their potential … and make sure they’re getting the most out of [Notre Dame].”

Dutile said he is confident in the ability of Notre Dame’s student athletes to flourish in the classroom.

“I am continually impressed by how many of our student-athletes compete well both in their sport and in the classroom,” he said.