An underdog story can never be told too many times.
Someone getting an opportunity that seemed improbable is the oft-told tale that never gets old. Athletes seem to be the perfect examples for these stories to be told. We’ve all heard about the “Cinderella-like” student-athletes being “saved” or given a huge opportunity after coming up from less-fortunate upbringings.
Unfortunately, a problem that has been emerging over the past few years is that the number of first-generation Division I student-athletes has been decreasing. According to a report by the Undefeated, the percentage of first-generation Division I student-athletes went from 16.1 percent in 2010 to 14.2 percent in 2015. While this might not seem like the most dramatic decline, any decrease is alarming and is indicative of the changes occurring in college athletics. The impact a successful athletic program can have on a university, both in financial terms and in bringing a community together, is unequaled. Giving talented athletes the opportunity to compete on this level, when they otherwise would not get a secondary education, is part of what makes the student-athlete and NCAA programs so valuable.
But certain pressures that are being put on universities aren’t allowing this to work the way it should and has in the past. The opportunities for hungry teenagers to overcome are just not as common.
The NCAA has always primarily concerned itself with the well-being of student-athletes and with ensuring that they get an education while also performing their sport. But recently, there has been more attention put on schools achieving high Academic Progress Rates (APRs). This metric holds school accountable for the academic success and progress of student-athletes, specifically retention and eligibility. It’s something Cal has been incredibly self-conscious of, especially after football found itself with scores among the lowest in major college football programs from 2008-12.
Part of why former Cal football head coach Jeff Tedford was removed from his position in 2012 was poor academic performance and graduation rates. While the Sonny Dykes football era featured a mixed bag of performances on the field, it was applauded and used as an example of how the football program had improved in leaps and bounds.
But part of what Cal is facing is an upward recruiting battle. After increasing over the last couple years, the standard for recruits of Cal Athletics is that 80 percent must have an average GPA of at least 3.0 in high school to be accepted into the program.The equation still isn’t right. Cal Athletics is attempting to combine high academic standards with dominant athletic standards. It’s just not working right now.
Student-athletes are no longer being chosen for scholarships based upon their talent on the field. Instead, 80 percent is used as an arbitrary cut off for how many people can be accepted with an academic cutoff. This number is far too extreme in limiting the number of opportunities that college athletics can provide. It’s a figure that looks nice in promotional pamphlets and in theory but is problematic and flawed almost everywhere else.
The embarrassment over the numbers regarding student-athletes’ academic performances is misleading and misplaced. While it is still important for students to be able to compete in the classroom, the goal of college athletics should go beyond the normal standards. Providing opportunities is a part of the deal. And it doesn’t seem to be happening on the same level anymore.
Suggesting that schools such as UC Berkeley and Stanford shouldn’t have academic standards for student-athletes would be nonsensical. These are schools that have incredibly high normal-admission standards, and many in this situation would have absolutely no chance of success academically against the regular student. Admitting anyone to these institutions based on athletic success alone would doom their chances in the classroom.
But part of what makes the UC system and UC Berkeley itself unique is the dedication to accepting first-generation students and making their comfort in the university they attend a priority. On a list in which UC Berkeley boasts of its own accomplishments, alongside winning 87 NCAA championships and 183 Olympic medals, is the 17 percent of the school’s freshman class that consists of first-generation college students. Based on the overall Division I percentage, the number is most likely lower for student-athletes.
There are standards for a reason. Not everyone should be accepted into the top universities in the world, because not everyone can find academic success at these institutions. But there is a point where being a student-athlete should be seen as an opportunity that someone couldn’t have had without their talent. They are not the typical students. Is there opportunity for them to coexist with the normal student population and for that to be worked on? Sure, but there are also different lives and expectations that await these two groups. Student-athletes aren’t and shouldn’t be treated like the average student. They should be accepted to the school on a different standard and provided opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Cal needs to have a system for deciding which student-athletes are accepted to ensure they don’t fail upon entering academic settings. But this shouldn’t come at the price of taking away a significant amount of opportunities and taking away from the culture of NCAA sports. Schools should put more focus on doing what’s best, not the numbers.