Room for Improvement? Asking the Tough Questions about Athlete Outcomes

At NextPlay, we believe that playing sports on the collegiate or professional level can have a profoundly positive impact on any individual. We have seen first-hand many examples of lives that have been positively changed forever due to sport participation.

Athletes have an opportunity to build transferable skills in a competitive environment, develop a valuable career network, and make memories that will last a lifetime. Many of the benefits of athletic participation can be seen in this recent Gallup/NCAA study on Student-Athlete Outcomes.

However, we also must recognize that the outcomes discussed in this study are not the reality for many athletes. We must consider the source and recognize that the NCAA has a vested interest in painting a positive picture rather than shedding light on some of the challenges that athletes face.

Any successful post-game film session includes both celebrating the good plays and reviewing the mistakes in order to improve. Similarly, we believe that we can both recognize the tremendous benefits of athletic participation while also asking difficult questions, being transparent about challenges, and identifying opportunities to enhance support for athletes.

Our mission is to ensure that all athletes can benefit from their playing experience, and we cannot do that without consistently analyzing the current state of play, particularly at the collegiate level.

Exploring the Other Side of the Story

There is a wealth of research suggesting that athletes face a variety of obstacles during their college careers that the average student does not face, including missing out on high-impact educational practices, facing stereotypes from peers and faculty that impact academic performance, suffering long-term injuries as a result of sport participation, and facing a broad range of challenges associated with the transition out of sport.

Further, there are alarming trends—particularly related to racial inequity—that are notably absent from this study and are largely ignored for fear of disrupting the status quo.

As the International Society of Sport Psychology noted in their 2020 Position Stand on career development and athlete transitions, “Many athletic populations and contexts are still unexplored. Many athletes experience mental health issues indicating ineffective coping with performance, career, and personal demands, but researchers favour studying successful athletes and environments leaving crisis-transitions and less successful environments at the margins of their interests.”

With this need for further exploration in mind, we took a look at some of the elements of the Gallup/NCAA study to make some observations and pose questions that we hope will be addressed in future iterations of this research.

Overarching Study Considerations

  • The numbers on wellbeing- measuring whether or not a person is leading a meaningful life- are quite alarming across the board, and could be considered more of an indictment of the education system than an acquittal of college athletics. According to the study, more than 50% of the graduate population is struggling or suffering in each of the five areas of wellbeing: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. These numbers are anything but reassuring, and should present a call to action for universities on behalf of all students, not just athletes.
  • Only 27% of athletes report having a mentor in college who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. Given the presence of a coaching staff on every team and the size of athlete alumni bases, this number should be nearly 100%. It is alarming that nearly three-quarters of athletes go through college without this type of mentorship and support.
  • More information and clarification is needed about the alumni sample. For example, how many of the non-athlete study participants were enrolled as part-time students? When we reached out to Gallup for clarification, they agreed that it is entirely possible many graduates had indeed been part-time students. This would be one of many ways in which the comparison between athletes and non-athletes in the study would not be apples to apples.

Race and Socioeconomic Considerations

  • Black athletes, particularly those in football and basketball, suffer worse outcomes than their white athlete peers and their general student body peers. Independent research on racial disparities in graduation rates, college experience, and transition challenges can be found in many places: here, here, here, here, or here. Recognizing these disparities is imperative for any group looking to support athletes.
  • In some instances, the data broke out the results into ‘white’ and ‘black’ outcomes. Notably, the initial data for long-term wellbeing was instead broken down into ‘white’ athletes and ‘minority’ athletes. We would be curious why the data was broken up inconsistently across the study and would ask for additional data to be revealed. In particular, what does the data say about long-term outcomes for black athletes relative to white athletes, and why was the choice made to use ‘minority’ data instead?
  • How are we controlling for socioeconomic status in addition to race and sport division? This would likely be one of the most significant factors in long-term outcomes but was not mentioned in the study. To that end, are we giving too much credit to college athletics and not enough to what happens before college? What does the data say about how high school athletes perform in college and beyond vs. athletes who did not play sports in high school? Is four years in college even a long enough period to influence long-term outcomes, or is the first 18 years of life (including socioeconomic status, parents, sport participation, etc.) more predictive?
  • Why was the data not broken out by sport? There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that outcomes for participants in high profile sports are actually worse than non-athletes, which is a major concern. Are there steps that need to be taken in high revenue sports to ensure that no sacrifices are being made to the educational experience of athletes?

Academic Achievement

  • Do athletes get more graduate degrees because they are passionate about their academic pursuits, or because their scholarships and sport participation depend on continued study? Do they have the freedom to select the degree that they want, or are they pushed down a certain path (one year program, manageable course load) when selecting a graduate program?
  • Do athletes have the freedom to select any major and take any class? How does their chosen major align with their expressed interests during recruiting, and how do the major selections of athletes align with the general student body? There is already a significant body of research suggesting that the answers to the above questions do not paint a positive picture of academic attainment for athletes.
  • NCAA athletes are more likely than their peers to graduate in four years or less. How often was this the will of an athlete vs. the necessary path in order to maintain a scholarship? How many athletes were able to select the classes that they wanted to take and learn at a comfortable pace? What is the proportion of summer courses taken by athletes vs. non-athletes, and how does this impact learning?
  • Athletes report that they felt challenged academically at a higher rate than their peers, which is seen as a positive in the study. How much of this challenge is due to the reality that many athletes spend upwards of 40 hours per week on sport-related activities, while their peers can use this time to study? While school may be hard for athletes, there is concern about how much athletes are actually learning as schools look for creative ways to keep athletes eligible and make numbers look good at the expense of real outcomes.

Extracurricular Opportunities

  • Why were athletic leadership positions included in the study of campus leadership? If non-athletes are not eligible for these positions, they should not be included in the comparison. What are the percentages of campus leadership positions when athletic team leadership is excluded from the data?
  • The study suggests that athletes study abroad at an equal rate to their peers and participate in internships at an equal rate as non-athletes. This claim directly conflicts with the realities of athletes’ obligations to their sport, especially at the highest levels. How many athletes are forbidden from studying abroad or participating in certain internships over the summer? How many of the cited internships—or study abroad programs—were limited in scope relative to the standard program that a non-athlete might pursue? What is the breakdown by sport and level of competition?

Tuition and Fundraising

  • We often hear that the primary reason athletes should not be compensated for their work is because they are in fact being compensated with free or subsidized tuition. The Gallup survey shows that athletes are, in fact, just as likely to borrow money for college as their non-athlete peers and to graduate with debt. The prevalence of athlete debt has increased significantly in recent years, with 20% of NCAA athletes now borrowing $40,000 or more to pay for college relative to 12% in the 1989 cohort.
  • Fundraising data presented in the Gallup study contradicts other research, which suggests that rates of former athlete giving are as low as 5%. Further study and data gathering is needed in this area.

We are fortunate to work with many athletes who have an extremely positive and formative experience as intercollegiate athletes, and we fully recognize the value that sport participation can bring.

However, focusing only on the positive aspects of athletic participation does not paint a complete picture and will not bring about necessary change. Hopefully, the questions raised in this review will help to inform future research that allows organizations like ours to better meet the changing needs of college athletes.

We continue to believe strongly in the power of athletics, but it is important to recognize how far we have to go to ensure that all athletes stand to benefit from the experience and can reach their potential, on and off the field.