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School vs. sports: Which really comes first for Duke athletes?

This story is the first in a two-part series examining the lives of athletes at Duke. The first part focuses on their academic experiences, and the next story looks at athletes’ social lives, the athlete bubble and Greek life.

Does school come first for athletes? Should it?

The answers to these questions might seem obvious according to the athletic department’s mission, which “requires that Duke athletes be students first.”

But when asked, Chris Kennedy, the senior deputy director of athletics who in various positions has overseen the educational mission of the department for 40 years, replied:

“Well, what does the University say?”

His response was not much different than that of the other man in charge of the athletic department’s academic affairs—Brad Berndt, senior associate director of athletics for student services.

Berndt asked essentially the same question as his colleague, before unlike Kennedy affirming that academics should come before athletics. He said, “The institution is committed to academics first, and the athletic department subscribes to that.”

New data—a compilation of publicly-displayed majors primarily from and athletes’ LinkedIn profiles—collected by The Chronicle raises further questions about how much athletes prioritize their studies.

The data, based on information for 192 upperclassman student-athletes and a comparison random sample of 215 current non-athlete seniors, revealed that just 23.4 percent of athletes major in the 13 most quantitative subjects at Duke. This figure is even lower for athletes who are regular contributors.

In contrast, among the non-athlete sample—also based on publicly-displayed majors and similar to official data supplied by David Jamieson-Drake, assistant vice provost and director of institutional research—59.1 percent major in at least one of these subjects.

“How important is the major?” Kennedy said. “A company that’s coming here to interview people and to hire people... what they’re looking for is evidence of ability.”

Two academic administrators and Berndt, however, were more resolute in their valuation of major choices.

Arlie Petters, dean of academic affairs for the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Academic Dean David Rabiner, director of the Academic Advising Center, and Berndt all said that if the majors students choose were being affected by athletics, it would be “concerning.”

That hypothetical may actually be a reality. Interviews with 10 current and former athletes who are still Duke students indicate that athletic demands are one of two main factors affecting major choice, along with how much athletes prioritize their sport.

“When you go into sports, especially at Duke, and especially with a sport like swimming that’s so demanding, there’s almost a turn-off from—I don’t want to say hard majors, but just majors that maybe take more of a time commitment,” said junior Parker Pearson, who left the men’s swimming team in March.

Even among athletes who have played in less than 25 percent of their team’s games in 2016-17—or in the case of track and field and swimming, have not consistently earned points in their events—only 41.9 percent are majoring in the most quantitative subjects. That figure is 18.0 percent less than the total for non-athletes.

The Chronicle selected the following 13 majors as the most quantitative based on required classes to earn each degree—biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, civil engineering, physics, mathematics, statistics, chemistry, biology, computer science, economics, neuroscience and biophysics. Environmental engineering was omitted since there were no majors in the athlete and non-athlete samples.

But Kennedy said he would be concerned if graduation rates were being affected by athletic participation, not major distribution.

“[It’s] a false dichotomy,” Kennedy said of comparing athletics and academics. “We’re an educational department of the University just as much as anything else.”

So much to balance, not enough time

Currently, 16.4 percent of athletes are majoring in sociology, compared to just 1.4 percent of non-athletes, according to The Chronicle’s data.

In contrast, 7.5 percent of athletes are majoring in the more time-demanding subject of economics, 6.8 less than the percentage of non-athletes—despite athletes’ academic interest in business that Kennedy and Petters cited as a reason for sociology’s popularity among them. The University does not offer an undergraduate business degree.

All four athletic and administration officials interviewed agreed that the more quantitative classes require more time, as did the current and former athletes—spread among seven teams—interviewed for this story.

In 2002, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” criticized the University for men’s basketball players’ strong tendency to major in sociology. The show found that almost 40 percent of them during the previous 10 years had majored in the subject.

At the time, Kennedy responded by citing a 2001 book titled, “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values,” that highlights athletes’ significant business interests.

The book includes data on former college athletes around the country from the Class of 1976, indicating that 49 percent went into business-related jobs compared to 35 percent of non-athletes from the same graduating class. The authors note, however, that the 14-percent difference might not fully explain differences in major choice.

“It is possible that the explanation goes beyond shared curricular and career interests, relevant as these are,” the authors wrote.

If time demands are leading to differences in what athletes study, it is easy to understand why.

A 2006 NCAA survey found that Division-I athletes average close to 35 hours per week in “athletic activities.”

“I get out of practice at 6:30, eat dinner and then you’re pretty beat and just like—I don’t have any energy to do work,” Pearson said. “And then you’ve got to get up the next morning at 6. So it’s like you got to keep going right away.”

“It’s like a full-time job,” junior football player Colin Duffy said.

Sophomore and former women’s lacrosse player Phoebe O’Hara and junior and former track and field athlete Rachel Thompson said athletic time demands directly interfered with their ability to take certain classes.

Petters, Rabiner, Berndt and Kennedy also acknowledged this reality as an explanation for athletes’ major distribution.

“As the time demands on student-athletes have increased over the years and as seasons have expanded beyond their traditional boundaries, we have had to adjust our support to account for missed class time, especially in quantitative, engineering and language courses,” Kennedy wrote in a 2008 athletic report.

Different priorities

Perhaps most importantly for the differences in academic interests, all 10 current and former athletes interviewed agreed that some athletes simply care more about sports than their academics.

These preferences raise questions about the part of the athletic mission that calls for athletes to “be admitted with careful attention to their academic record and motivation.”

“Some people do make deliberate choices that they know are going to allow them to put more effort into athletics, or maybe make their academic time here a little bit less stressful,” senior women’s soccer player Lizzy Raben said.

Duke football head coach David Cutcliffe agreed that many athletes place a greater emphasis on their sport than academics.

“Our guys do well [academically] that want to do well,” Cutcliffe said. “The reason a lot of athletes at any major institution choose to come, is they choose to come play their sport. And then they look at what they want to work in or study. They probably wouldn’t have come to Duke had they been regular students.”

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag wrote in an email that the University does not look at the intended majors of applicants—athletes or non-athletes—because of how little those interests pan out in college. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how the statements by administration officials and athletes compromise Duke’s athletic mission, if at all.

Junior Sam Meyers, who spent her first year on the fencing team, said that the program’s culture differed from other teams’ and that the coaches were flexible about schoolwork.

“A lot of the fencers I know... they’re at Duke for the work, for the school and for the education—and I didn’t always get that sense from other athletes,” she said.

Meyers also said the fencing team had among the highest GPAs of any team at Duke. Team-by-team breakdowns of The Chronicle’s data indicate that only the men’s swimming team and both the men’s and women’s fencing teams had academic major distributions in line with those of non-athletes

Meyers and Pearson cited more flexible practice schedules and the discipline required by those sports in particular as explanations for the academic similarities.

Teams also have different admissions standards, Berndt said. As a result, some teams have required study hours in the Krzyzewski Center for Athletic Excellence, but others like fencing and swimming do not, Meyers and Pearson said.

The football team studies in the Yoh Football Center, and junior and former football player Mike Fagan said that academic coordinators would immediately get the grades of their football advisees when an exam was returned.

“We have our whole life in there,” Duffy joked about the Yoh Center.

“There 100 percent is different treatment for different sports,” added junior Kiersten Bell, a former track and field athlete.

Steered away by advisors?

Numerous athletes offered another explanation for the different major distributions—the role of academic coordinators.

Athletes have these advisors in addition to the advisors that all Duke students receive. But junior and former women’s lacrosse player Gianna Ossello, Thompson and Bell said that academic coordinators had pushed them toward less time-consuming classes or majors.

Thompson, who was not recruited as a scholarship athlete, said she was upset when told to avoid certain quantitative classes.

“I was like, ‘I got into this school on my merit, the rigor is fine,’” Thompson said. “My normal academic advisor was just more laid back. She was just like, ‘This is what you want to take? Alright, cool.’”

Bell said she was told her schedule would be perhaps too difficult when she presented it to her academic coordinator, even though it was the normal load for a freshman engineering student like herself.

And Ossello said she is now unable to get a B.S. in evolutionary anthropology after being steered away from more quantitative and “hard-science” classes as a first-year. The former scholarship athlete said she hoped to be a pre-med student when she began her time at Duke.

“[The academic coordinators] were like, ‘No, that’s a lot of work. You should stick to some of the other sciences that aren’t as time-consuming, like earth and ocean sciences,’” Ossello said.

Berndt said if academic coordinators are making it significantly difficult for athletes to major in quantitative or hard-science majors, that would be “totally inappropriate.”

Not all the athletes shared the same experience. Fagan, O’Hara and Meyers said they were not pushed away from certain majors, though they added that their academic interests are non-quantitative subjects.

Pearson, an electrical and computer engineering and computer science double major, said, “I think [academic coordinators] want you to understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into.”

Duffy took more of a middle ground, suggesting that the difference in major distribution was a product of both the choices of athletes and the behavior of academic coordinators.

Asked multiple times for official data on athletes’ majors that could better represent the discrepancies between athletes and non-athletes, Berndt could not be reached for comment.

The University appears to be doing what it can to improve the academic experience of its athletes. Thompson and Pearson estimated at least a majority of student-athletes use the tutoring services, and all seven student-athletes asked about the tutoring said it is extremely helpful.

“It’s so easy and nice. All I have to do is email my [academic coordinator], ‘I need some help in this class,’” Ossello said. “They’ll look at my schedule for me and they’ll sign up a tutor for me.”

Summer school has also “just exploded,” Kennedy said. He explained that it allows athletes to take the classes they want without worrying about practice time or travel schedules. Additionally, athletes have the first registration windows for their courses within their class, Kennedy said.

Finally, the University has expanded summer study-abroad programs for athletes with the 2015 creation of the Rubenstein-Bing Student-Athlete Civic Engagement program. The initiative, featuring 20 Duke student-athletes and 20 Stanford student-athletes, has helped lead to what Petters says is a greater proportion of athletes studying abroad or away than non-athletes.

It remains to be seen, however, what else can be done to improve athletes’ academic experience, or whether anything should be.

Petters said he would be more concerned if the top majors for athletes and non-athletes started looking significantly different, pointing to a pie chart of official major data that he did not grant The Chronicle permission to publish.

According to The Chronicle’s data, five of the seven most popular majors for athletes are also among the top seven most popular majors for non-athletes. However, the order of their popularity differs, and the total of these five majors is just 42.3 percent of all non-athletes’ majors.

Kennedy said that if athletics were hypothetically carving too much into athletes’ study time, “The only something we could do is to say, ‘15 hours [of practice] a week, max.’”

Asked whether that idea was practical, he said, “That’s possible. The [Ivy League schools] practice less than the rest of Division I does, they have more restrictive rules on practice and stuff.”

“But that means that the University has reconsidered its commitment to Division-I athletics, to being in the ACC. And the University has decided at this point that as a university value, one of many, that whatever publicity, attention, brand is created or enhanced by athletics is worth having this kind of athletic program—with all the implications of that.”

Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.


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