Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make to student athletes who take their classes: “You are not here to play football” (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But the truth is, to say they are “not here to play [insert sport here]” is not fully true.
Coaches play an important role in recruiting every incoming class. I knew that intellectually, but I really did not understand how the coaches play an integral role in the recruitment of an incoming class. Until I began to mentor the football team and took a front row seat to the academic cycle of the team and a coach’s life, I did not realize how vital they are to the admissions enterprise. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue, student recruitment is key. While we have lots of outreach and marketing, it is often through a coach that a student first learns about an institution and has his or her “first touch.” Coaches want talent for their teams, and they spend a lot of time in high schools recruiting top students. Thus, many times the student’s first interaction with a college institution is through the coach.
In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to the question, “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. They emphasized that they very much love their sport, and to play, but they also want an education.
"Playing football" was not among the answers. Not one single student answered the question “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” with “to play football” as their first answer. While football may be the reason they looked at this particular college, and while the sport may offer them opportunities through alumni connections, each of these students had their eyes on a larger prize: a college education and a pathway to a job and career. A follow up question about where they might be in five years, students answered by saying “I want to be a spokesman for a company” or “have a steady income.” Other students answered, “having independence financially,” and “finding a career and maybe starting a family.”
Thus, by their own answers, football was not the primary reason that they were in school, and yet, as the book I am currently writing will hopefully demonstrate, playing football is an important identity marker for them, and it is often their ticket to college. Without the team in high school, a coach’s interest, they may not have found a path to college as easily as they did through their sport.
Faculty, perhaps we should be a bit more reflective and interested in our students' sports identity and be more willing to help them make the most out of their four years, in the classroom and on the field.