The Student-Athlete Experience

By Miles Unterreiner

Among top-ranked national universities, Stanford is unique in its commitment to athletic, as well as academic, excellence.  Driven by a long-standing competitive ethos that inspired the university’s founders to declare in 1891 that “physical activity is valuable for its own sake and that vigorous exercise is complementary to the educational purposes of the university,” Stanford student-athletes have since the university’s inception displayed an impressive ability to succeed both on the field and in the classroom.  In doing so, they have helped build what students and administrators elsewhere have found impossible to create: a world-class institute of higher education that also wins national championships.  Combining the athletic dominance of a UCLA or a USC with the academic superiority of a Princeton, a Yale, or a Harvard, and factoring in the perpetually outstanding Northern California weather, it’s perhaps no surprise that both students and parents ranked Stanford #1 on the Princeton Review’s 2010 “Dream College” list.  Among schools recognized as academically excellent, Stanford is unparalleled in its athletic record; among schools recognized as athletically preeminent, Stanford is unrivaled in its high educational standards, selective admissions process, and uncompromising levels of scholastic rigor. Given this impressive set of credentials in both arenas, however, it is perhaps fair to ask the inevitable question: which comes first?

With outstanding records on both counts, it’s definitely a tough choice.  Athletically, Stanford’s history is nothing short of remarkable.  Our Athletics Department, which governs every varsity sport, has been honored 15 years in a row with the Director’s Cup, a prize given annually to the best overall NCAA Division I sports program. With an impressive 79 NCAA Division I team championships won since 1980 (the most in the nation), 409 individual NCAA titles (again taking the #1 spot), and 97 team titles overall (second only to UCLA), Stanford has consistently fielded teams capable of excelling at the highest levels of conference and national competition.

Academically, Stanford students and faculty set the bar just as high.   With a 7.6% undergraduate admissions rate, The Farm is one of the most selective universities in the world, receiving a record-high 30,428 applications for only 2300 spots in the class of 2013.  With 25% of incoming freshmen having scored over 2300 on the SAT (and three-quarters over 2000), each entering class represents the cream of the American and international intellectual crop.  Admission to any of Stanford’s top-ranked graduate and professional schools is, if anything, even more competitive; Stanford Medical School accepted only 2.6% of applicants last year, for example, while the median LSAT score for last year’s 1L class at the Law School was an astronomically high 170. 

This unique combination of virtues, however, also presents a unique set of challenges for Stanford student-athletes, who must balance the physical and the intellectual, the bodily and the mental, on a regular and consistent basis.  Athletically, time commitments are high (often between two and four hours per day, depending on the sport) and physical fatigue almost omnipresent.  Scheduling classes, already an intricate affair, is subject to an additional layer of complexity as calendars are forced to accommodate morning and afternoon practice time; problem sets get pushed back until after evening weightlifting; 8 hours of sleep may be necessary to excel in the game the next day, but also make finishing that paper on time impossible; studying for midterms takes place on a plane or in a bus instead of in your room; and studying abroad becomes nearly impossible, especially for those who compete in more than one sport or whose competitive seasons are longer than one quarter.  Athletes compete, moreover, not just with their rivals from other schools, but also in the classroom, where their classmates are among the world’s best and brightest.  Stanford athletes who hope to become engineers or doctors face a particularly difficult set of obstacles; the task of balancing required and rigidly structured pre-med or engineering curricula with the requirements of a varsity sport occasionally verges on the Herculean.

Given this formidable set of challenges, and the considerable time commitment of both athletic and academic pursuits, some prioritization seems inevitable.  So how, exactly, should student-athletes prioritize?  Which set of responsibilities takes precedence?  The answer would appear to be that there are different times for both.  During finals week, of course, academics reign supreme – NCAA regulations ban practice during finals, in fact, and study is foremost in most athletes’ minds.  During the championship season, however, a focus on the rigors of the sport becomes more appropriate.  It must be kept in mind, of course, that the two are never mutually exclusive – excellence in one arena does not necessarily mean forfeiting excellence in the other, as Stanford’s continued and consistent success in both areas has demonstrated.

The administration, for its part, has developed an extensive and effective support network to help athletes navigate their path through the university.  At the Athletic Academic Resource Center, or AARC, athletes receive free tutoring and advising, for example, while at PAE (Partners for Academic Excellence), advisors “assist world-class student-athletes in managing their demanding schedules and utilizing their limited free time efficiently.”  And athletes, it appears, have responded with enthusiasm, skillfully integrating study with training and succeeding in the classroom at levels superior to their counterparts at other universities.  Stanford graduates its athletes at a rate of 93%, the highest in the Pac-10 and eleven percentage points better than second-place Washington.

Only at Stanford, ultimately, might one see a member of an NCAA Championship-winning soccer team sitting next to a future Nobel Prize winner, or an All-American swimmer taking a Math 51 final with California’s next great senator, or a soon-to-be NBA star proofreading a paper authored by an up-and-coming abstract artist and piano maestro.  Both athletic and academic excellence will continue to be hallmarks of a university that, more than any other, values greatness – both on and off the field.

This entry was posted in Articles for Volume 3, Issue 3, Spring 2010. Bookmark the permalink.

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