Graduating from the Gridiron: How athletes achieve success in an academic environment

Cover by Luna Anna Archey
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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
and Emma Kerr, Daily News Editor
Published January 26, 2015

Kevin Bain stared down at the blank slate below him. With water dripping down his face, the diver concentrated, took a deep breath to clear his mind, then pushed forward.

Then a freshman, Bain was on the road competing for the Michigan men’s swim and dive team, but his work for the Wolverines that day was done. Mere moments after twisting, contorting, and testing his body in the pool, Bain had to take a different kind of test: the pencil-and-paper type much more familiar to University students.

“It’s always a balancing act,” said Bain, now a senior studying Business and Comparative Literature. “We may have to meet with professors or group projects at odd hours, take exams on the road, just find different ways to make it work.

“I remember coming in as a freshman and mapping out my schedule, and it wouldn’t all fit,” he said. “It’s kind of a tug-of-war, and sometimes you have to make sacrifices, it works out, but it’s always a battle.”

Such is life for many of the 934 student-athletes at Michigan. The unique dynamic of being among the nation’s best academically and athletically means those that balancing the two worlds is key. It’s rarely easy, fair, or fun, but the University ensures that athletes are given the opportunity to make it work.

***

Josh Bartelstein chuckles when thinking back on his senior year. As a captain of the 2012-13 men’s basketball team, Bartelstein helped guide his team to its first Final Four and National Championship appearances in 20 years.

But, as a teaching assistant and senior in Sport Management at the time, he remembers not having quite the same success in the classroom.

“I think I went to four classes a week for that month,” Bartelstein said. “We were lucky to have chartered flights, or it could’ve been less. We were doing pretty much everything on the road. We always had our books, tutors, advisors — it was crazy really.”

The team was also lucky to have John Beilein at the helm. Taking over the program in 2007 — a program that hadn’t advanced to the NCAA Tournament since 1998 — the coach knew his team needed work ethic more than talent to survive at Michigan.

“They don’t always just recruit the best kids. They recruit kids that fit our culture and can do what we do academically,” Bartelstein said. “They need to be intelligent kids who are ready to work hard, otherwise they’ll have to go elsewhere.

“For some guys, it’s hard. It’s hard to write a 10-page paper as a sophomore knowing that, a year from now, you’ll make a million and a half dollars playing in the NBA. That’s where you see coach and his values kick in, because to him, it’s not really an option. You might hear guys complain. But it’s not either-or, it’s part of the whole package when you come here.”

That package deal translates to other sports. For Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson, it presents decisions that no coach likes to make.

With nine National Championships and 35 NCAA Tournament appearances, the Wolverines draw interest from North America’s most talented hockey players. But to make it at Michigan, Berenson expects more.

“I’ve told kids, great hockey players, if you’re not interested in school, don’t come to Michigan,” Berenson said. “I’m going to make your life miserable, and you’re going to make my life miserable, because that’s not what we’re doing here. If you’re coming here, you need to be hungry for an education and to become the best player you can, that’s what it’s all about.

“I’ll take hockey away from you in a heartbeat if you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to do in school.”

***

Berenson can demand the hunger, because he had it too. Long before he knew he would spend 17 years in the NHL or 35 years as a coach, he was lacing it up for Michigan on the ice and in the classroom.

A business student with an unknown hockey career ahead, Berenson didn’t dare distract himself. Even a seemingly small distraction like a TV in his room could hurt him.

“We were more on our own,” Berenson said. “We didn’t have the tutors, study tables, mentors. You were on your own, and don’t screw it up. Now, you’ve got more structure, you’ve got people around to keep an eye on you who know what your grades are, tutors available. It’s more structured for the student-athletes to succeed.”

This structure is good, Berenson said, given the increased demands on athletes. With national media attention, millions of dollars in funding, and thousands of fans attending games, Berenson knows that his players face greater pressure than he ever did

“There’s more demand on the student-athletes today,” he said. “The season’s longer, the workout schedule is more difficult than ours was — you really have to balance your time and manage things well.”

Even with the resources available, that’s no small task. Business sophomore JT Compher, a forward, alternate captain on the hockey team and a second-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, finds that with games just about every weekend, he is rarely available to participate in group projects, a tough pill to swallow.

“The biggest challenge is my time constraints and meeting with groups,” Compher said. “Sometimes, I might not be able to meet with a group, but I make myself available to get the rundown and do whatever I can to help. It’s basically just managing my time when I’m not at the rink.”

But not all athletes experience the same academic workload. According to 2008 report by the Ann Arbor News, athletes accounted for about half of the students enrolled in the University’s general studies program which offers potentially lighter workloads and flexible requirements.

Bain said this stems from NCAA rules about declaring majors and progressing toward degrees efficiently. These rules, designed to ensure no one gets left behind, sometimes backfire, pushing athletes to general studies, Sport Management or other programs seemingly tailored to their unique needs as students.

“By the end of our junior year, we need to have 60 percent of our major finished,” he said. “If we try to switch majors and we don’t have the requirements for that major, we’re ineligible. Athletes don’t really get the option to switch or change majors, so we may end up in majors that simply fit what we have.”

Bartelstein has seen this incidental funneling firsthand. While former teammates such as Zack Novak, Matt Vogrich and Jordan Morgan sought degrees in business and engineering, many other teammates were steered away from such disciplines, even if indirectly.

“You have to know what you’re signing up for,” Bartelstein said. “If you want to do business or engineering, no one will say no to you, but you have to understand the time commitment and degree of difficulty certain classes present.

“You hear people at the academic center say things like ‘take this class’ or ‘stay away from this professor,’ but it’s not a forced decision. They want to make sure student-athletes are setting themselves up for success.”

That’s not to say it can’t happen, however. Bartelstein also saw his team, even in its rise to national prominence, make adjustments for players’ academic commitments.

“They’re probably happy they did it now, but there were times that they’d be missing sleep the night before a game or taking tests on the road,” he said regarding his teammates pursuing less flexible degrees. “There were times for a lot of guys where they were told ‘I’m not sure you can do this, but if you want to put in the effort, we’ll make it work.’ So maybe guys miss practices or we work our schedule around exams, but Coach Beilein always made sure that academics were a priority, and we catered to that the best we could.”

Still, the numbers indicate Novak and the like are a minority group. More athletes major in Sport Management and general studies than any other majors, despite the fact that these programs may present less clear paths to jobs after college. This is in stark contrast to Berenson’s playing days, but the coach is learning that with the right mindset, any of his players can still find success.

“I think it’s fine, but I’d like them to pick a major and then go for it,” Berenson said. “A lot of them haven’t thought about it. They aren’t sure what they want to do, and my take is if (general studies) is what you want to do, then make sure you do well so you can go to graduate school once you’re done.”

***

The type-casting expands beyond majors. Just about every Michigan student knows the ‘athlete look.’ There’s the green Gatorade water bottle, the blue parkas and the matching Adidas backpacks. And there’s the tired, quiet expression, often accompanied with headphones and a spot toward the back of the class.

Regardless of their personal academic successes, athletes can struggle to shake the stereotypes associated with seemingly ‘easy’ majors, time away from class and cultural norms surrounding athletics.

Throw in the fact that Michigan athletes have a $12-million academic facility other students can’t use, along with free tutors and personal advisors, and the divide between athletes and regular students is wider than ever.

“There’s definitely that stereotype,” Bartelstein said. “And some people at Michigan fit the mold, but I think too much is made of it.

“I know with our team we had academic conversations all the time, it wasn’t just go to class and then leave. Our classes were a huge part of our lives. We spent more time in classes and studying than we did anything basketball-related.”

Bartelstein feels that the stereotype is truer for Michigan’s revenue sports: football, basketball and hockey. But Bain, who was recently nominated to be a Rhodes Scholar and serves as a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, sees it discourage smaller-sport athletes as well.

“People assume when I show up to class that I’m just at Michigan for athletics, not academics,” Bain says. “It sucks that they’re already judging us when they don’t know us, and kind of missing out on the interesting people that we might be.

“A lot of athletes don’t always wear their varsity jackets, because we just don’t want to deal with the stigma. It’d be great if we didn’t have to worry about teachers or students judging us before they met us.”

***

As a former student-athlete, Kinesiology Prof. Rebecca Hasson said she doesn’t try to treat student-athletes any differently than other students, but that the key to success when teaching students is communication.

“The athletes aren’t any more busy than any of the other students,” Hasson said. “Because the communication lines are open, we will try to work with one another’s schedules as much as possible. We make certain that if a student is doing poorly, we address it early on. Their grades are submitted to the Athletic Department as well as to our offices, so they need to go to student services or come to office hours immediately.”

Hasson tries to be sensitive to the unique issues that arise for student-athletes, like high-pressure times around championships where a student could be missing weeks of classes, but she believes student-athletes have more to offer than just their athletic perspective.

“For the student-athletes, that is just one identity they hold,” Hasson said. “The student-athletes are probably a little more outspoken, because they have those leadership skills on the court and can bring that to class.”

“If you just treat the student not as a student-athlete, but as a student who just has very limited time but is as valuable to the class as any other student, that will make for the best learning environment.”

Hasson said she has seen more issues in younger student-athletes as they transition to college life.

“At the younger ages — and for all students, really — there is a lot of pressure and you are tired on top of everything, and it’s hard. As the students transition, they become great at time management, though. They work well in teams, and so I guess I come to athletes’ defense a little.”

“The stakes are higher here, but I think that in my experience, it’s not that the professors have to make special accommodations, but you just have to accept that you have to be willing to let a student miss class because that is the next step in their career. “

***

Jay Basten, a Sport Management professor, said each student-athlete is unique and has a different set of priorities, but overall their presence and participation in his classes, especially those that touch on college level sports, has added to the learning experience in the classroom.

“It’s great having student-athletes in those particular discussions, because it gives the non-athlete students some real insights into the challenging they face.” Basten said. “For me, I’ve been here for 15 years teaching in the program, and overall it has been very positive having them in the class. They are an impressive group of students, but they do have some distinctive challenges.”

These challenges, Basten said, are dealing with limited time and balancing their other time commitments on the field or on the court. Addressing these issues as a professor is a balancing act as well. While Basten said he obviously must find alternative ways to ensure student-athletes are receiving and understanding the material in class, he also does not support making special concessions or different standards for student-athletes.

“When student-athletes do have issues as far as conflicts, ultimately we believe that our classes are as important as their practice times,” Basten said. “I encourage them to come to office hours, but I particularly stress that they should come if they are missing classes, but I don’t really do anything proactive for any student, because I believe they need to be able to take responsibility for themselves.”

Sometimes, Basten said, this means getting creative and being willing to go the extra mile as a professor. This could be meeting students at Starbucks or at the Academic Center — making sure student-athletes are putting in the time necessary to succeed in class, but being as available as possible to meet the sometimes-irregular needs of student-athletes.

While student-athletes have their days scheduled by the minute, Basten said an injury could be detrimental to a student’s ability to balance schoolwork with the practices they still must attend.

“The one thing I have noticed that people do not always talk about that affects their lives around campus is injuries,” Basten said. “When they get hurt, especially if they are on crutches or something, that’s one additional layer they have to deal with, and I see that happen very often.”

While Basten confirmed that the differences between a student-athlete’s commitment to a class varies from individual to individual, this contrast becomes more stark when varsity athletes playing for revenue-generating sports are compared to athletes playing for teams that are not counted on for significant revenue.

“The athletes in the revenue sports — football and basketball — tend to be more focused on their potential to become professional athletes, so that is their priority,” Basten said. “That’s not to say that for all of them. I have some who are very much into the academics and would probably say academics first then athletics. In the non-revenue sports, especially among female athletes, I would say I’ve seen that academics are their priority.”

Though the Athletic Department could not support this report, Basten said several of his students mentioned a change in the requirements of how many hours upperclassmen must spend in the Academic Center.

“I understand this from some of my football students, that Jim Harbaugh came in and required mandatory study hall at the academic center for all students, not just the underclassmen,” Basten said. “I have mixed emotions on that.”

“On the one hand, I like the coach coming in and making sure academics are a priority, but on the other hand, I don’t think forced study is what we think about when we think about the University of Michigan.”

***

After all is said and done, the vast majority of Michigan athletes leave campus with a degree in their back pockets. According to the NCAA, Michigan achieved an 88-percent graduation rate in 2007, the most recent year such data was made available.

Even if Compher and his teammates see success in the NHL, Berenson knows they’ll regret not joining that majority.

“Your hockey career may not even be a career,” Berenson said. “Ninety percent of our players aren’t going to make a living playing hockey. They all might get a chance to play for a month or a year, of pro hockey, but unless you’re in the NHL, it isn’t much a career option.

“So to me, getting a degree means your life after hockey is going to be better. You’re going to have better choices, you’ll have an opportunity to have a dignified career.”

The Michigan hockey team recognizes this, as the vast majority of the team leaves with a degree. Additionally, six former Michigan players have already returned to Ann Arbor to complete their degrees after competing in the NHL, inspiring players who already have professional ties to recognize what they have.

“Whether you’ve made millions or not, you’re going to want to do something valuable the rest of your life,” Compher said. “Most of us have aspirations past hockey, and this is a good stepping stone to get us there.”

Whether it’s friendly GPA competitions within teams, Athletic Department-funded etiquette dinners and resume workshops or even networking on road trips, athletes have an opportunity to not just win the balancing battle, but also to progress to success down the road.

“If you talk to any of the athletes here, we could have gone to almost any university,” said Bain, who will work for Citi Group's Capital Markets Managing Program after graduation. “We have some of the most talented athletes in the country, we choose Michigan for a very specific reason, and that is the Michigan degree.”

Added Bartelstein, who — in addition to having a book published — works for a real estate firm:

“The student-athlete community does a really nice job connecting alums to student-athletes after graduation. Companies know that athletes have the discipline and work ethic to be successful in the work force, so it’s a huge thing for the athletes that don’t play professionally to get linked to good jobs.”

Bartelstein’s team is a good example of that. Despite a national runner-up finish, a conference championship and a return to the national basketball stage, the former captain believes the team might be most remembered for what comes next. With players working for consulting firms and engineering programs — and the NBA — the team proves that, as hard as it seems, Michigan athletes can and do make it work.

“I think the guys around me who have successful jobs after college are a prime example of our team not just being successful at basketball, but creating successful people,” Bartelstein said.