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A comprehensive analysis of athletes and their majors

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Do all athletes really major in Economics? Conventional wisdom at many Division I schools might lead us to believe that yes, they do. Economics at most colleges and universities is perhaps the most popular major among athletes, with many Division I athletes following traditional business paths. A 2015 study in the Bleacher Report of the “Big Five,” the five power Division 1 Conferences for football (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, and the Pac-12), found that an overwhelming number of football players participated in business and related majors. Other popular majors included sports administration, communications, and kinesiology and exercise sciences. However, some famous Division I athletes have followed much more non-conventional paths. For example, Dikembe Mutombo, the former NBA star, majored in Linguistics and Diplomacy in his time at Georgetown. Michael Jordan majored in Geography during his time at the University of North Carolina. This is all to say that particularly in the Division I sphere, majors are more often centered around pre-professional tracks: those that create a direct path into a job in finance, sports administration, consulting, or for athletes like Michael Jordan, a side-career in mapmaking!

What is different about the Division III scene, particularly Swarthmore College? Are there discernible differences between a student-athlete at Swarthmore College and their educational experience versus a football player at the University of Michigan? The Phoenix Digital Ops team put together a comprehensive analysis of male and female athletes in the 2015-16 sports season, and their declared majors. We aimed to hypothesize what a top-tier liberal arts education pushes for our student-athletes. Do our athletes follow similar tracks to the ones Division I athletes are on, or does Swarthmore push a different type of academic creativity that transcends the traditional pre-professional tracks?

For the ten varsity male sports in the 2015-16 season, there were 103 declared majors among the juniors and senior classes of each team, which includes double majors. For example, if a Men’s Varsity Tennis athlete double majored in Engineering and Psychology, this would be counted twice in our tally. 26% of male athletes majored in Economics. Men’s Lacrosse had the highest percentage of Economics majors on a single sports team, with 52% of the players having declared Economics majors. The second highest declared major for male athletes was Engineering, at 14.5%. This was followed by political science, computer science, psychology, and math. Majors that were not represented among men’s athletes during the 2015-16 year included Environmental Studies, Greek, German Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies (many being regularized special majors).

Ian Cairns ’20 responded to the data compiled by the Phoenix Digital Ops Team, and added his own experiences as an athlete choosing his prospective major.

“I’m from Detroit, Michigan and I’m a member of the Men’s Varsity Soccer team. Currently, I’m an intended Economics major, with an undecided minor. I’m not surprised by the amount of Economics majors on some of the male sports teams. That being said, at a place like Swarthmore, there are a lot of abstract and non-traditional majors that are offered too.”

Cairns went on to comment on the difference between a Swarthmore education and once at a bigger university.

“I would definitely say at Swarthmore, there is encouragement for athletes to go outside the traditional majors. I know at larger institutions, it is common to apply to a certain school within the university for your major. I had a lot of friends who went to the engineering school at the University of Michigan, where the distribution requirements make it much different from a liberal arts school like Swarthmore. That being said, both have their benefits; I don’t really have a bias to either.”

This sentiment reflected by Cairns is largely backed up in the data. Some varsity athletes end up going outside the traditional majors, while many do major in traditional majors like Economics, Biology, Engineering, etc.

For the ten women’s varsity sports in the 2015-16 season, there were 85 declared majors among the junior and senior varsity athletes. Interestingly enough, the data compiled was vastly different in comparison to the male athletes results. The most popular major among female athletes was biology, which accounted for 14% of the declared majors. This was followed by psychology at 11%, political science at 10%, education at 8%, and economics and history at 7%. Majors that were not represented among women’s varsity athletes included cognitive science, and Chinese.

The data shows us that Swarthmore varsity athletes are really not that much different than the average Swarthmore student. The most popular majors across gender were Economics, Engineering, Biology, Psychology, Political Science, Computer Science, and Math. This almost directly mirrors the most popular majors among the Swarthmore student body as a whole. The largest majors discrepancy for athletes versus the student body was Economics, as 18% of athletes majored in Economics, as opposed to 13% for the student body, which isn’t particularly  significant. Is there something about a Swarthmore education that differs from a larger institution? For one, our data shows us that while Swarthmore varsity athletes follow many of the traditional majors that athletes and students across the country declare, there also exists a diversification in the data that we might not necessarily see at a non-liberal arts school. Out of every major in the school, every single one is represented by at least one varsity athlete. From gender studies to economics, a critical analysis of the data reveals that the varsity athletes at this school are just as academically diverse as the rest of the school. While many traditional majors are represented, athletes are declared majors in every single major on campus. It is clear that the stereotype that all athletes are some type of Economics or business major is transcended at Swarthmore. Our academic mission promotes intellectual curiosity and the liberal arts as a tool to discover your passion. Swarthmore varsity athletes and the student body at large embody just that.

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