Inside a culture of flexibility for student-athletes

Balancing class commitments with athletics is a persistent challenge at Swarthmore College
Balancing class commitments with athletics presents a persistent challenge at Swarthmore College. Photo by Sadie Rittman

Every several weeks, it seems, another student-athlete scandal rocks a prestigious university. Most recently, five Notre Dame football players have been suspended from the team amid cheating allegations. This news broke just after the furor subsided from former University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill basketball player Rashad McCants accusing renowned head coach Roy Williams of pushing him and others into taking classes that essentially provided rubber-stamped A’s for all student-athletes.

Even the Ivy League, famous more for producing world leaders than professional athletes, has not been immune to controversy. In 2012, Harvard University was rocked by the largest cheating scandal in memory, eventually forcing around 70 students to withdraw. Many of the implicated students were varsity athletes, with two of the best players on Harvard’s nationally-ranked men’s basketball team being forced to withdraw from the school for a year in order to avoid suspension.

These incidents could reflect a variety of ills in college sports, from lax admissions standards to overburdened student-athletes. Of course, the common thread between these scandals is that all occurred at elite NCAA Division I institutions. Whether the challenges that led to these scandals exist at a small Division III school such as Swarthmore is a different question entirely.

Based on interviews with student-athletes and professors from a variety of disciplines, it is clear that even at Swarthmore, playing a varsity sport requires some academic trade-offs. However, students and professors agreed that student-athletes here are largely able to balance these commitments. Aided by the flexibility of professors and coaches, Swarthmore student-athletes appear to feel free to choose their courses and majors and several have excelled on the field, court or pitch while majoring in disciplines that many of their Division I peers would not be permitted to commit the time to pursuing.

Men’s soccer player Michael Superdock ’15 was named last fall to the Capital One Academic All-America First Team. Superdock’s honor marked the third consecutive year the men’s soccer team has had a player named to the Academic All-America first team, as the defender followed on the heels of standout goalkeepers Peter Maxted ’13 and David D’Annunzio ’12.

Notably, Superdock majors in computer science, a major that, with its demanding in-class commitments and labs, is far from a stereotypical athlete major. Superdock said that he “ended up choosing computer science regardless of sports,” emphasizing that “the coaches understand that academics really come first here.”

The culture of encouraging students to prioritize their academic interests prevails throughout the athletic department.  Women’s soccer player Julia Murphy ’15 and volleyball and basketball player Chastity Hopkins ’15 highlighted some of the methods coaches use to ensure that their players are able to balance their academic and athletic commitments.

Murphy, a defender and Honors chemistry major, said that while “Coach [Todd Anckaitis] is very clear that, yes, you are committed to soccer and you are committed to practice, he is very committed to the two-hour rule,” meaning that all team activities are confined to a daily two hour time slot, allowing players to effectively plan their schedules. She added that in her experience, “both professors and coaches have had a good understanding of NCAA rules and the expectation to go to class instead of practice.”

Hopkins, who balances being a two-sport athlete with a biology major, is thankful that, “My coaches have never told me that I cannot do something.” Volleyball coach Harleigh Chwastyk has taken a different approach from that of Anckaitis to ensuring that athletes are able to train without missing class. Biology’s afternoon labs often force Hopkins to miss the beginning of practice, but since Chwastyk “schedules flexible practice times between 4p.m. and 7p.m.” players are able to arrive late or leave early without falling behind. “They want me to commit to being a good student and to being a good teammate,” Hopkins added.

The culture of flexibility is emphasized from the top of Swarthmore’s athletic department. Director of Athletics Adam Hertz says that although “coaches try to work around as many classes as possible… [conflicts are] often unavoidable for some of the larger teams and for those whose sports are limited to practicing during daylight hours.” In these instances, “coaches understand that students will have to miss practices on occasion.” Hertz makes clear that “students are never to miss an academic obligation for a practice.” With respect to games, Hertz works with other Centennial Conference schools to craft schedules that minimize conflicts.

As for the idea that students may feel compelled to choose less-demanding majors in order to focus on athletics, Hertz was as dismissive as Superdock, Murphy and Hopkins, saying simply, “That’s not why we are here.”

For certain sports and certain disciplines, however, the picture is less rosy. For players on teams that cannot practice or play at night, such as softball and baseball, choosing courses in-season can be challenging. Some departments, as baseball outfielder Brian Kaissi ’15 points out, appear to be particularly inflexible with regard to course offerings. Kaissi says that, “As a political science major, it is often difficult to structure an academic schedule that does not interfere with athletic obligations. For example, some classes are offered at just one time, just one semester in the calendar year.” With student-athletes largely unable to enroll in afternoon classes while in season, departments, such as political science, that schedule the majority of their courses in the afternoon often prevent these students from taking courses they would otherwise be interested in.

While buy-in from coaches and student-athletes is a major part of students’ freedom to take the courses they want, professor flexibility is important as well. Here, the perspective of students and professors alike is that most professors are willing to work with athletes. Athletes, however, called out one persistent issue: the increasing tendency for class commitments to extend beyond scheduled times.

Hertz characterizes this trend as a “time creep,” which he describes as a “broader campus-wide issue… where field trips, lectures, and other obligations are increasingly scheduled during the time of day that has been traditionally recognized as time for students to pursue their other extracurricular passions.”

Both Superdock and Murphy cited the “time creep” as an occasional problem. Superdock pointed out that 7p.m. computer science study sessions are virtually impossible for him to attend in-season. For Murphy’s chemistry major, seniors must attend Thursday afternoon lectures, something that poses problems for Murphy. Since the lectures are a requirement for completing the major, Murphy is confident that her coach will allow her to miss practice. However, by forcing her to miss additional practice time for non-class related commitments, the department contributes to the “time creep” and forces Murphy to compromise her commitment to her teammates. Other departments, such as the political science department, which annually requires senior majors to present their comprehensive papers on a spring Saturday laden with athletic events, contribute to this problem as well.

Professors stressed their willingness to accommodate students’ needs. Lisa Meeden, chair of the computer science department, says that, “if a student needs to miss a lab or exam, I have it rescheduled.” Meeden lauded athletes for their communication, adding, “In my experience, student-athletes have been very proactive about letting me know of potential conflicts so that we can get them resolved early in the semester.”

Fellow computer science professor Ameet Soni echoed Meeden, saying, “I think athletes do a wonderful job of managing their schedules and they usually pose less of an issue than non-athletes as they quickly learn to develop good time-management skills.”

While none of the professors interviewed for this piece spoke out against being flexible for class conflicts, economics professor Mark Kuperberg took a characteristically witty approach to the issue. Kuperberg became perhaps the first person to apply the Coase Theorem to college athletics when he postulated that “Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize for realizing that externalities are fundamentally about two parties fighting over a common resource.  In this case, the common resource is Time. My feeling is that the academic side should have the property rights and should be bribed by the athletic side when they want extra time.  I’m still working on what form that bribe should take.”

Bribes and property rights aside, it appears that the student-athlete balance is a healthy one at Swarthmore. Student-athletes are generally motivated and capable, with many excelling even while balancing demanding academic schedules. This balance would not be possible without strong cultures of respect and communication that exist within both the coaching and professorial communities at Swarthmore. While issues such as the “time creep” and the inflexibility of class schedules in certain departments certainly need to be addressed, Swarthmore’s athletics culture exhibits a balance that make the probability of the school facing controversies such as those experienced at Notre Dame, UNC and Harvard quite slim.

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