The myth

Student-athletes have a good read on whether they’ll go pro or compete in the Olympics.

The reality

Most sports fans have at some point dreamed of making it to the big leagues – visions that evolved in our young minds as we watched, wide-eyed, our favorite athletes compete. You can do anything you put your mind to, we were told. But, at some point, most of us realized that dream of playing professional sports or representing our country in the Olympics would never materialize. After all, in men’s and women’s basketball, football, men’s ice hockey and men’s soccer, fewer than 2 percent of NCAA student-athlete seniors will be drafted by a U.S. professional sports league.

The long odds don’t faze student-athletes. Ambitious and confident – both characteristics that helped them get this far – a high percentage of young adults across sports and divisions think there is a chance they will be among the sliver who play professionally.

The most striking gap between expectation and reality lives in men’s basketball. Three-quarters of Division I men’s basketball players said it was at least “somewhat likely” they would become a professional athlete or Olympian. Just around half of the men in Division II and 21 percent in Division III shared that belief. This, despite the fact that only 1.2 percent will go on to join a U.S. professional team. The odds are better in baseball, where 9.4 percent of NCAA student-athlete seniors advance to the next level. Still, it’s a far cry from the 60 percent of Division I and 43 percent of Division II participants who think they have a shot.

The survey results reflect similar confidence in football, men’s soccer, men’s ice hockey and women’s basketball. All we can say: Thank goodness for college degrees.

The source: The 2010 NCAA GOALS (Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in College) Study: A survey of about 20,000 student-athletes across sports and divisions giving a glimpse into their experiences as student-athletes. The study is conducted every four years.

The myth

More than ever, Division I student-athletes are pursuing the same, easy majors.

The reality

It’s a term called “major clustering,” and it is based on the assumption that Division I teammates declare the same majors – and not necessarily because they all share the same academic interest.

Unfortunately, such activity does occur; student-athletes are free to choose whichever major they want, for whatever reason. But is major clustering truly common? And is it happening more than ever? To find out, the NCAA research department compared the latest data on Division I student-athlete majors to those of other students and analyzed trends over the last nine years. Researchers also reviewed survey data revealing student-athletes’ attitudes toward their majors.

The findings? From 2003 through the 2011-12 academic year, the trends in student-athlete majors have remained consistent. In each of those nine years, the most popular category of major has been business, management, marketing or another related field. Social sciences took the second spot each year, and majors in the liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities category were consistently third-most common.

Those top three fields of bachelor’s degrees pursued by student-athletes are also the top three most common fields chosen by the rest of the student body. In fact, when comparing student-athlete major choices as a whole versus those of non-student-athletes, differences were subtle. For instance, slight contrasts exist in areas such as parks, recreation, leisure and fitness majors (more student-athletes) and engineering (fewer student-athletes). But after factors such as varying interests and demographics between the groups are taken into account, that difference is no surprise.

When former student-athletes were asked why they chose their major, 83 percent of Division I student-athletes pointed to a personal interest in the topic, and three-quarters stated their major prepares them for the career they want. Athletics-related reasons – such as “the class schedule works with my practice schedule” or “the major would help maintain my eligibility” – trailed the list. In other words, today’s student-athletes are making many of the same kinds of academic choices as their non-athlete peers, as well as their student-athlete predecessors. Better yet? Most are making these choices for the right reasons.

The sources: U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics: 2010-11 data

Division I Academic Performance Program: A collection of student-athlete academic performance variables reported each fall. 

2012 NCAA SCORE Study (Study of College Outcomes and Recent Experiences): A longitudinal study of NCAA Division I former student-athletes who received their degrees a decade ago. Over 7,000 surveys were received. 

2010 NCAA GOALS Study

The myth

Student-athletes drink and use drugs more than other students on campus.

The reality

We seem to hear it all the time. A starting player fails a drug test, and headlines follow. Liquor flows at a team party, and trouble ensues. Student-athletes are recognized at clubs, and rumors fly. Considering the attention this sort of news receives, one might assume student-athletes are turning to drugs and alcohol more often than the average student. But the data tell a different story.

According to findings from a 2013 NCAA survey, student-athletes are using social drugs such as tobacco, marijuana and cocaine at lower rates than their peers. About 22 percent of them reported using marijuana in the last year – significantly lower than the 35.5 percent of college students who reported using it in a national study conducted the same year by the University of Michigan.

About 10 percent of student-athletes smoked cigarettes, compared with 23 percent of the entire student population. And the difference continued with cocaine use: 1.8 percent of student-athletes versus 2.7 percent of the student body.

As for alcohol, student-athletes are consuming it in proportions similar to their non-athlete peers. Most studies – including the NCAA’s – reveal around 80 percent of students drank alcohol in the last year. Athlete or not, there’s room for improvement, to be sure.

The sources: The 2013 NCAA National Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes: A quadrennial survey sent to up to three teams at each NCAA school. Approximately 21,000 student-athletes responded to the survey. Data was collected anonymously with the help of campus faculty athletics representatives.

The 2013 University of Michigan Monitoring the Future study: A long-term national study that each year surveys between 1,100 and 1,500 college students on their use of drugs and alcohol. Research professors at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research conduct the study.

The myth

You can’t believe the NCAA graduation rates – their numbers are distorted.

The reality

Not all graduation rates are created equal. That’s evident each year when the time comes for grad rate announcements. You have the federal rate, for one – the most widely used measurement, employed by the U.S. Department of Education since 1990. Then you have the NCAA’s rate, a methodology crafted in 2002 to better capture true student-athlete academic success. Often, the two rates don’t match. And we can explain why:

In the federal formula, the student-athlete group consists of first-time, full-time freshmen who enroll for the fall semester and receive athletically related financial aid. Student-athletes who transfer into the school or do not receive financial aid are excluded from the calculations. Conversely, student-athletes who transfer from their initial school are counted as nongraduates, and even if the student-athlete transfer goes on to graduate, his or her new school does not get that graduation credit.

After college presidents and chancellors became increasingly frustrated about the limitations of this methodology, the NCAA created a new formula called the Graduation Success Rate. This methodology includes transfers in and out of schools, midyear freshman enrollees and recruited student-athletes attending schools that don’t offer athletic scholarships. As a result, the NCAA formula has tracked about 11,000 additional graduates who were left out of the federal calculations, and it consistently produces rates that are about 10-15 points higher than the federal rate.

If the federal formula adopted the NCAA’s method of including transfers, a similar spike in grad rates among the overall student population would likely occur. To avoid an “apples to oranges” comparison, the NCAA continues to use the federal rate when comparing student-athlete graduation rates with those of non-student-athletes.

The NCAA uses variations of the Graduation Success Rate formula for Divisions II and III, taking into account the fact that fewer Division II student-athletes – and none in Division III – receive athletics aid.

Graduation rates aren’t simple, and they’re certainly not perfect. But in taking extra measures, the NCAA aims to give a more accurate snapshot of student-athlete academic success.

The source: NCAA legislation and federal law require schools offering athletics aid to report student-athlete graduation rates each year. The NCAA obtains student-athlete graduation data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System Graduation Survey.

The myth

Student-athletes don’t care about community service.

The reality

“Time demands.” That was the most common answer when student-athletes were asked to identify one thing they would change about their college experience. These young adults are downright busy, cramming in practices and games and team meals and travel into the already full load of any college student. They don’t have time for much else – including community service. Right?

Actually, that’s not the case. The NCAA learned most student-athletes believe in giving back, and even more important, they’re making the time to do it. Recent surveys show 56 percent of male and 67 percent of female student-athletes think they have a responsibility to participate in volunteer or service activities.

Half of respondents reported they were required to do community service as part of athletics participation, but many others go above and beyond. More than 80 percent of them volunteer at least once a year, while 44 percent do so at least a few hours a month.

Even more, the commitment to community service is seen across all three divisions, in fairly equal amounts. How’s that for some feel-good news?

The sources: The 2010 NCAA GOALS Study.

The 2012 NCAA Social Environments Survey: Approximately 65 percent of NCAA schools participated in this study, providing the NCAA with anonymous responses from 21,500 student-athletes. The survey focuses on factors that impact student-athletes on campus.

They don’t just join; they lead.

For Franklin Pierce senior Catie Swiderski, the planning never stops. The volleyball player has organized fundraisers in each of her four years as a student-athlete, most benefiting a cause dear to her heart: research for breast cancer, which killed her mother when Swiderski was 11. For others looking to give back, Swiderski shares her tips:

  • Get your team involved. “Make them as passionate about the cause as you are. When I mentioned my plan to my team, they took it and ran with it.”
  • Take advantage of social media. “Post about the event on Twitter and Facebook. We primarily get all our donations online. You just click a link and can make a donation right then.”
  • Build planning into your regular schedule. “We schedule time out of our volleyball meetings to talk about these events. We start thinking about our next fundraiser the minute our fundraiser ends.”
  • Utilize your sport. “Hold a fundraiser during one of your games, which people were already going to come to. You can use your sport for something bigger than it is. If younger people aren’t taking the initiative to make change in the world, then who’s going to?”

The myth

All Football Bowl Subdivision athletics departments net millions of dollars and pour more institutional money into athletics than other Division I schools that are not in FBS.

The reality

Believe it or not, big names, big wins and big facilities don’t necessarily equate to big profits in the world of Division I athletics. This myth is not only inaccurate – it’s far from the truth. Only 20 Division I athletics departments out of nearly 350 – just over 5 percent – generated more money in 2013 than they spent.

A profit is not a given even among teams in the so-called “revenue-generating sports” of football and men’s basketball. Only 56 percent of FBS football programs last year operated in the black, and in men’s basketball, 53 percent of FBS schools did.

The second piece of this myth is equally off the mark. In terms of average institutional dollars spent each year on athletics in FBS, Football Championship Subdivision schools and Division I schools without football, the numbers are nearly identical. Each year since 2004, the amount of institutional funds invested in sports at FBS and Division I non-FBS schools has increased in increments that are striking in similarity. Regardless of subdivision, the average Division I athletics department spent approximately $11 million more than it generated in 2013.

It just goes to show: You can’t judge a school’s financial commitment to athletics by its football subdivision.

The source: The NCAA Financial Reporting System.

The myth

‘One-and-done’ men’s basketball players are bad students.

The reality

During the 11-year span between academic years 2003-04 and 2013-14, only 70 male student-athletes were drafted by an NBA team after playing for just one season. They make up a tiny subset of the entire NCAA basketball student-athlete population and have such a short stay in NCAA athletics, yet these “one-and-done” players often become some of the most well-known names and faces in college sports.

If you want to get in a healthy debate with a fellow sports fan, the rules surrounding one-and-done might be a good place to start. Opinions abound about the NBA requirement that players be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school before entering the league. Even NCAA President Mark Emmert has been vocal about his disapproval of the age limit, which leads some of the most elite high school players to attend college only until they become NBA eligible.

With that in mind, it’s common to assume these student-athletes aren’t even “real” student-athletes at all – meaning they’re just biding their time, using college as a one-year waiting room without a care for academics. But the data suggest something different.

From 2011 to 2014, the male student-athletes who left college after one year graduated high school with an average core GPA of 2.77 – well above the NCAA eligibility requirement of 2.0. In college, this same group had an average spring GPA of 2.55 and an average cumulative GPA of 2.88 at the time of their departure. Only six of the 32 left with a cumulative GPA below 2.5, and seven earned above a 3.0. Just two student-athletes left their school academically ineligible.

Top of the class? Not quite. But not bad, either.

The source: The NCAA Eligibility Center and the NCAA Academic Performance Program.

The myth

A male student-athlete gets more scholarship aid than a female.

The reality

At first glance of the numbers, it would be easy to accept the above statement as truth. More than $2.7 billion in athletics scholarships are distributed to student-athletes each year through NCAA schools in Divisions I and II, and as a whole, men do in fact receive a larger piece of the pie.

The proof, however, is in the proportions. In the 2012-13 academic year, more than 96,000 men (including roughly 27,700 football players) and about 83,000 women participated in a Division I sport. And even though the men received more money overall due to the larger number of participants, the average male Division I student-athlete that year received $11,300, compared with the average female Division I student-athlete, who received $11,365. In Division II, a male received $4,479 on average, while a female received $5,128.

When comparing only sports that are sponsored for both genders, the trend continues. Women on average received a bigger scholarship than men in all Division I sports except basketball. Such a difference is necessary, however. The additional money for females in sports such as ice hockey, tennis and golf helps balance out the hefty financial aid needs in football – avoiding a drastic tipping of the scales toward men and a reduction in athletics opportunities for women.

That balance is kept in check thanks to Title IX, the gender-equity law that, among other things, ensures female and male student-athletes receive proportional athletics scholarship money. Since the law’s inception in 1972, we’ve come a long way.

The source: The NCAA Financial Reporting System.

Title IX in action

Title IX came around just in time for Bev Lewis. In the ‘70s, the former track and field athlete received a scholarship the first year Central Michigan University offered them to women. After graduation, Lewis became a cross country and track coach at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, just as female coaching opportunities were emerging. Then, over a span of 33 years, she rose through the ranks, securing a front-row seat for the changing landscape of women’s sports.

Lewis served as associate vice chancellor and executive athletics director for the Razorbacks before she retired last summer. Before that role, she served 19 years as women’s athletics director – a period of change she treasures. “The ‘80s and ‘90s were a fun time for me because, at Arkansas, we did a tremendous program expansion,” recalled Lewis, who coordinated Title IX compliance for the department. She led the addition of volleyball, softball, gymnastics and women’s golf to the program, increasing opportunities for females at the school.

When Arkansas decided to merge its men’s and women’s athletics programs in 2008, Lewis was there for the transition: “I wanted to ensure everybody was treated equitably and taken care of.” Further proof of the impact Lewis made remains obvious on campus in the form of a training facility for female athletes dedicated in her name.

Reflecting on where it all started, the recent retiree feels fortunate for the timing of advancements in women’s athletics. “My whole career in sports, from college on up, was enhanced by Title IX,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of fun now because you see kids coming into college, and they don’t understand the impact it’s had and how far we’ve come.”

She added: “And that’s a good thing.”

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Champion magazine.